BEIRUT • Hopes for a quick political transition in war-ravaged Syria dimmed on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad threw cold water on an ambitious timetable agreed at international talks in Vienna.
At the same time, the United States held firm to its calls for Mr Assad's departure, with President Barack Obama insisting that the war could not end unless the Syrian leader steps down. "I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power," said Mr Obama.
Saudi Arabia will host a conference next month aimed at unifying the Syrian opposition, Saudi-owned television station Al Arabiya Al Hadath reported. The conference comes after an international agreement to launch talks between the Syrian government and opposition by Jan 1.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to gather the entire Syrian opposition and help them to (present) one voice and one unified position," Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah Al-Mouallimi told Al Arabiya television. He said the conference would include "all shades of the opposition", including figures based in Syria.
He declined to specify a date for the conference, but a Saudi government official said it was expected to take place on Dec 15.
Top diplomats from 17 countries met in Vienna last Saturday to discuss a way out of Syria's nearly five-year conflict, which has killed more than 250,000. They produced a two-year timetable: A transitional government would be formed and a new Constitution written within six months, to be followed by internationally monitored elections within 18 months after that.
But in a television interview with Italy's Rai television, Mr Assad said there could be no transition schedule for elections while swathes of Syria remained out of government control. "This timetable starts after defeating terrorism. You cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria," he said. "If we talk after that, one year and a half to two years is enough for any transition."
Damascus refers to all opponents - fighters and activists alike - as terrorists. The government has insisted that combating "terrorist groups", including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant organisation, should come ahead of any political solution.
Mr Assad also rejected the idea of United Nations observers monitoring elections, saying the world body had "lost all credibility". In comments to French magazine Valleures Actuelles, the embattled leader said Syria could only accept observers from countries that "were not partisan during the crisis".
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to work with the Western coalition striking ISIS if its members respect Syria's sovereignty. ISIS-held territory across eastern, central and northern Syria is the target of a US-led air coalition as well as Russian strikes.
Air strikes on fuel trucks in ISIS' de facto capital, Raqqa, killed at least six civilians and wounded 20, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another eight people were killed and 20 wounded in government shelling of an olive press in Sheikh Maskin, in the southern province of Daraa, it said.
Meanwhile, Syria's army and rebels struggled to pursue talks to reach a 15-day ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta rebel stronghold east of Damascus. The two sides had been locked in talks overnight in the hopes of reaching a deal by 6am (noon Singapore time), in what would be the first temporary truce in Eastern Ghouta.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS