Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he would not negotiate with "terrorists." The comments come a day after a divided opposition coalesced around a unified position ahead of potential talks with the regime.
In his first comments since Syrian opposition and rebels groups agreed on a common position in international talks with the Syrian regime, Assad said on Friday that he would not negotiate with foreign-backed armed "terrorist" groups.
"They (world powers) want the Syrian government to negotiate with terrorists, something I don't think anyone would accept in any country," Assad said in an interview with Spanish news agency EFE published on Syrian state media.
Assad said that after backing the armed opposition, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the West now want "the terrorist groups to join these negotiations," adding they "cannot be opposition while it's related and beholden to any other country, to a foreign country."
Assad noted that he would negotiate with a genuine Syrian opposition but that armed groups would have to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty.
After two-days of Saudi sponsored talks in Riyadh this week trying to form a united position ahead of potential early January talks with the regime, the myriad stripes of the Syrian political opposition alongside various rebel factions agreed to negotiate with regime representatives to end a destructive five-year war that has drawn in the United States, Russia, Europe and Middle Eastern countries.
The Riyadh conference set up a 34-member committee to oversee peace talks. The committee will then select a negotiating team. The committee is heavily stacked with rebels groups, with 11 representatives, while the largely western-backed exiled opposition has nine members, Syria's internal opposition closer to Assad six members, and eight independents.
Among the rebel members are the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which has close ties to the al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and Free Syrian Army groups. Many of the rebels have received support from outside powers to topple Assad.
Assad won't step down
The Riyadh group agreed on an inclusive and democratic Syria with no future for Assad, who they said would have to step down in any transition period.
The role of Assad in a transitional or future government has been a major sticking point in international talks to end the conflict, with the Assad regime's backers, Russia and Iran, insisting the Syrian people have a say in the president's role.
Assad said he still had support in the country and would not step down.
"If I think that I can help my country, especially in a crisis, and the Syrian people still support me – I don't say the Syrian people; the majority of the Syrian people to be more precise – of course I have to stay," Assad said.
"I never thought about leaving Syria under any circumstances, in any situation, something I never put in my mind," he said when asked if he would step down as part of a political solution.
Faced with a threat from the "Islamic State," a wave of refugees, and Russian intervention, the West has softened its stance on Assad, leaving his role in a transition ambiguous in international peace talks joined by top diplomats from 20 nations in Vienna last month. The US and Russia are the main powers driving the latest push at a diplomatic solution in Syria.
The opposition's insistence that Assad step down before a transition will complicate talks as Syria's ally Russia has said the Syrian people should decide on Assad's rule. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister said the international community was making a "mistake" not to enlist Assad against the "Islamic State" and insist he step aside.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is schedule to visit Moscow on Monday for discussions with Lavrov and possibly President Vladimir Putin, said he would talk to the Saudi's about problems with the opposition and rebels' position.
"There are some questions and obviously a couple of, in our judgment, kinks to be worked out," he said on Friday while attending the climate summit in Paris. "And I'm confident that they're going to be worked out so I'll be having conversations with them during the course of today."
For its part, Russia has insisted international powers come up with a list of terrorist organizations - which would from Moscow's view include groups such as Ahrar al-Sham - and legitimate opposition to negotiate with the Syrian regime.
cw/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)