Syria, exile opposition meet in Geneva


McClatchy Foreign Staff

The government of Syria and the opposition attempting to oust it confronted each other at an international peace conference Wednesday with back-to-back speeches that made clear it a political solution is unlikely any time soon.

The United States and Russia set up the conference under U.N. auspices to name a new transitional authority that would replace the government President Bashar Assad, but the Syrian government immediately challenged the premise.

Assad’s Foreign Minister, Walid Mouallem, said no one has the right to withdraw the legitimacy from the current regime other than Syrians, and they will make their decision in a national referendum.

Mouallem accused the Syrian opposition of “selling themselves to the highest bidder,” and betraying their country, having sold themselves to Israel. In bitter, sometimes lurid language, he went accused them of massive crimes, including rape, murder and even cannibalism. He urged the world to join in his government in a fight against terrorism.

The president of the opposition Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, spoke of children being executed by regime forces, of 200,000 “martyrs” in the course of the uprising, and nine million residents forced into exile or internally displaced. He said the opposition would join the talks in hopes of achieving a “a full solution,” based on transferring all of Assad’s state authority to a transitional body.

Bue he also called on the government to halt the targeting of civilians and to withdraw all foreign forces, a reference to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Revolution Guards. But he asked: “do we have such a partner” in the talks?

The two sides will begin formal talks at the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters on Friday.

Russia has been the principal outside backer for the Assad regime, but in his remarks Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, made clear that Moscow continues to support the Action plan adopted in June 2012 with the United States, which calls for establishing a transition regime to succeed Assad.

He said the government and opposition representatives should “discuss concrete parameters to implement the (June 2012) Geneva communiqué and the subsequent steps to be taken by the Syrian people independently to determine their own future.”

But he also urged that all interested countries “refrain from any attempts to determine the outcome and undermine the Geneva process,” possibly an indirect reference to the publicly stated U.S. position that Assad must go.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry charged the Syrian regime with the militarizing what had been a peaceful pro-democracy uprising in March, 2011.

“The Syrian uprising started peacefully,” he said. “But eh Assad regime answered those peaceful demonstrations with ever-increasing force.” He charged the regime with using “guns, tanks and artillery, gas, barrel bombs and SCUD missiles fired upon students and doctors.” He said starvation had been used as a weapon of war and cited a new report signed by international jurists that descried systematic torture nad the execution of thousands of prisoners.

Kerry called for impelmenetation of the July 2012 Geneva Communique.

A new government “cannot and will not include Bashar al-Assad,” he said. “That’s just a simple reality. There is no way the man who has led the brutal response to his own people can regain the legitimacy to governen. One man and his henchmen cacan no longer hold an entire nation hostage.”

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