LUXEMBOURG / PARIS / BEIRUT: Syria’s wary opposition meets in London Tuesday to weigh taking part in a proposed peace conference in Geneva a day after its European backers urged it to rally behind the talks. The call from European Union ministers came as Syrian President Bashar Assad cast doubt on prospects for the “ Geneva II” conference and hinted at his desire to run for re-election, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said any re-election attempt by Assad would prolong the country’s civil war.
Some Syrian opposition figures and groups have insisted on obtaining guarantees that the Geneva process will include Assad’s departure from power and have threatened a boycott, but the European ministers brushed off their concerns.
“The EU calls on the opposition to come together and participate actively at the conference and encourages the National Coalition to take a leading role during negotiations,” said a statement issued after talks in Luxembourg.
The ministers said the EU “stands ready to continue engaging with and to support the coalition in these endeavors and its relations with the international community at large.”
Washington and Moscow have been trying to organize Geneva II, first announced last year, on the heels of an agreement for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.Syria’s opposition has been fiercely critical of that deal, which averted U.S. strikes on the regime following a sarin gas attack in August that killed hundreds of people. At least one major faction, the Syrian National Council, has already refused to take part. The regime has insisted that Assad’s exit is not on the table.
The National Coalition postponed internal meetings scheduled for this week to early November, as it weighs whether to attend Geneva II.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters that a London meeting Tuesday of Western and Arab “Friends of Syria” opposition backers could “pave the way,” amid a worsening humanitarian disaster.
But the coalition’s ability to speak for the broader rebellion has been challenged by rebel factions on the ground in Syria.
The Syrian president, speaking during an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, said the factors needed for the proposed peace conference to succeed do not yet exist.
He said it was not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility they would have inside Syria.
“Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people, or they represent the country that made them?” Assad asked.
Asked whether he would run for re-election, Assad said “my answer depends on two factors. The first is personal desire, and the second is the will of the people.
“Regarding the first point, the one related to me personally, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t run in the next election.”
From Paris, Kerry cited the opposition’s rejection of any political role for Assad. “If he thinks he’s going to solve problems by running for re-election, I can say to him, I think that certainly this war will not end as long as that’s the case that he’s there,” Kerry said after talks with Arab League officials.
“I don’t know anybody who believes the opposition will ever consent to Bashar Assad being part of the government,” Kerry said.
“He has bombed and gassed people in his country ... How can that man claim to rule under any legitimacy in the future?”
Asked about Iran taking part in the Geneva talks, Kerry said Tehran would first need to accept the principle of a transitional government agreed at a first round of talks in the Swiss city last year.
“ Iran has not accepted the implementation of Geneva I, so it’s very hard to see how it can be constructive,” Kerry said. “If they accept Geneva I and want to be constructive ... that’s a different issue.”
United Nations-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Baghdad that all countries “with interests and influence in the Syrian affair must participate” in Geneva II.
The veteran troubleshooter has said he would also travel to Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Syria and then Geneva for talks with Russian and U.S. representatives.
A Syrian pro-regime daily said that he was expected this week in Damascus, where he came under heavy regime criticism for suggesting a transitional government after his last visit in 2012.
Separately, Kuwait said that it would host in January a second donor’s conference to raise aid for Syrian refugees at the request of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Also Monday, the Dutch head of an international mission to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal arrived in Damascus. Sigrid Kaag will head up a joint mission of the United Nations and the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The Dutch U.N. official leads a team tasked with inspecting more than 20 sites by the end of the month and destroying Syria’s chemical stockpiles by mid-2014 under the U.S.-Russian deal.