GENEVA/DAVOS: Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba said Thursday that the international community has realized that President Bashar Assad cannot remain in power, with key ally Russia not “holding on” to him.
Jarba spoke after U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi held separate meetings with Syria’s warring sides behind closed doors to lay the groundwork for direct talks after the first day of a peace conference ended in bitter exchanges.
Brahimi met separately with delegations from the opposition, and then Assad’s government, in Geneva before full talks are due to resume Friday.
It was unclear after the meetings whether the two sides would agree to hold face-to-face talks or if mediators would shuttle between them.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Brahimi was due to meet with both sides again Friday morning with the goal of having them in the same room by the afternoon.
“He hopes to have them at the table tomorrow and we’ll see what happens,” the official said. “We knew this would not be an easy process.”
After meeting with Brahimi, Jarba said the regime had become a “political corpse.”
“The world is now sure that Assad cannot stay and will not stay,” he said. “We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now. Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead.”
Moscow, Assad’s major backer, had given assurances that it was not committed to Assad, Jarba added.
Assad’s officials, who left the session with Brahimi without making any statement, have insisted that the Syrian president is not going anywhere, a view endorsed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Obviously he is not ready at this point in time,” Kerry said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The U.N.-sponsored conference – the biggest diplomatic effort yet to resolve Syria’s devastating civil war – opened in the Swiss town of Montreux Wednesday with heated disagreements among the two sides and world powers.
Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the conference, which officials have said could last up to 10 days, but diplomats believe that simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is a mark of some progress and could be an important first step.Mediators will be looking for short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, possibly including localized cease-fires, freer humanitarian aid access or prisoner exchanges.
Brahimi said he “had indications” from both sides that they would willing to discuss these issues.
Hadi Bahra, a member of the opposition delegation, told AFP the opposition felt it had benefitted from the regime’s aggressive tone at the start of the conference. “We have heard very positive feedback from inside Syria and it is the first time we’ve felt so much support from Syrians for the Coalition.”
In a vehement attack during his opening speech that went long beyond his allotted time, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused the opposition of being “traitors” and agents of foreign governments.
The regime delegation behaved “like the mafia, with a style very far from diplomacy,” Bahra said.
Moallem, speaking after opening day, said his government’s priority was to “to fight terrorism.” He said: “This paves the way for the start of the political process and an internal Syrian dialogue without any foreign intervention.”
At least 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began in March 2011 with a peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule.
Assad’s representatives were staying in Geneva’s Hotel de la Paix, or Peace Hotel. The opposition coalition was staying at the Intercontinental, where then-President Jimmy Carter met in 1977 with Assad’s father, Hafez, to discuss Middle East peace prospects.
For his part, Kerry ramped up already harsh criticism of Assad, calling him a “one-man super-magnet for terrorism” who has committed war crimes and could be responsible for the ultimate disintegration of Syria.
“Assad has to decide that he is prepared to put the future of Syria ahead of himself,” he said in the interview. “This is a man who has committed war crimes and still somehow wants to claim legitimacy to be able to govern the country.”
Kerry said Assad’s actions had not only killed more than 100,000 Syrians over the past three years, but were putting them at further risk from extremists rather than protecting them from radicals.
“Before Assad started killing his own people, these terrorists were not in Syria,” Kerry said. “The fact is that more and more terrorists keep coming because Assad keeps killing and Assad keeps directing his people to engage against innocent civilians.”
Kerry said if an agreement was reached many countries had offered to send peacekeepers to Syria, but he made clear U.S. troops would probably not take part.
“If there is a peace agreement, there are many countries that have already offered to step up and be peacekeepers in the new Syria,” Kerry said. “I don’t think anybody believes that American troops should be on the ground.”
Kerry said there was a role for Iran in Syria as long as it endorsed a 2012 plan that establishes a transitional governing body.
Iran was invited to attend the Montreux gathering but the U.N. invitation was later withdrawn after it failed to support the 2012 agreement known as Geneva I.
“What Iran needs to do is either show that it’s more than words, that its actions are willing to join the international community, or it will be very difficult to have Iran be part of this,” Kerry said.
At the Davos forum, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for a new election in Syria, saying his nation would respect the results.
“The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria” and once the ballots are cast “we should all accept” the outcome, Rouhani said.
Badr Jamous, secretary-general of the coalition, derided the speech.
“Where are we going to conduct such elections? In the Syrian [refugee] camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey?” he said. “Or shall we look after the Syrian refugees in the boats sinking in the Mediterranean or in Europe or under the wreckage in Syria or in the cemeteries or in his prison?”