Syria says Assad will remain president until 2014

BEIRUT (AP) - Syria's foreign minister laid out a hard line on Wednesday, saying Mr Bashar Assad will remain president at least until elections in 2014 and might seek another term, conditions that will make it difficult for the opposition to agree to United Nations-sponsored talks on ending the civil war.

Any deal reached in such talks would have to be put to a referendum, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem added in a TV interview, introducing a new condition that could complicate efforts by the United States and Russia to bring both sides together at an international conference in Geneva, possibly next month.

Drawing a tough line of its own, the main exile-based political group, the Syrian National Coalition, reiterated that any negotiations require "the head of the regime, security and military leadership to step down and be excluded from the political process".

While the Assad regime has agreed in principle to attend peace talks, the opposition has not, insisting it first get international guarantees on the agenda and timetable. The coalition has been meeting for the past week in Turkey but spent most of that time arguing about membership issues, rather than making a decision about Geneva.

In his wide-ranging comments, Mr al-Moallem, an Assad stalwart with decades in top positions, reflected a new confidence by the government. The regime had seemed near collapse during a rebel offensive last summer but has scored a number of battlefield successes in recent weeks.

"Our armed forces have regained the momentum," he told the Lebanese station Al-Mayadeen, suggesting that the regime is digging in. Asked when the civil war might end, he said: "That depends on when the patience of those conspiring against Syria will run out."

The uprising against Mr Assad began in March 2011, turned into an armed insurgency in response to a harsh regime crackdown, and escalated into a civil war. The fighting has killed more than 70,000 people, uprooted more than five million and devastated large areas of the country.

The conflict has taken on strong sectarian overtones - most of the armed rebels are Sunni Muslims, a majority in Syria, while Mr Assad has retained core support among the country's minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, along with Christians and Shi'ite Muslims.

Both the regime and the opposition still bet on a military victory but are being pressured by their backers to attend the Geneva talks, the international community's only plan at the moment for trying to end the war.

Chances of success seem slim, with a host of issues remaining open, including a detailed agenda, the list of participants and a mechanism for implementing any possible agreement.

Mr al-Moallem introduced what appeared to be a new Syrian condition on Wednesday, saying that "anything agreed on in Geneva will be held to a referendum in Syria". "If it wins the support of the Syrian people, we will go ahead with it," he added.

He said Mr Assad will remain in his post at least until scheduled elections in 2014.

"From now until the next elections, President Bashar Assad is president of the Syrian Arab Republic," he said. "Will Assad run in 2014 or not? This depends on the circumstances in 2014 and on the popular will. If the people want him to run, he will run. If the people don't want that, I don't think he will. Let us not jump the gun."

The West, including the US, has repeatedly called for Mr Assad to step down. Mr al-Moallem said that "Americans have no business in deciding who will run Syria," adding that this "would be a precedent in international relations that we must not allow".

Mr al-Moallem also delivered the regime's most serious warning to Israel since the start of the conflict, saying Syria "will retaliate immediately" if Israel strikes Syrian soil again. Earlier this month, Israeli warplanes struck near the capital of Damascus, targeting purported Iranian missiles intended for Assad ally Hizbollah, a Lebanese militia. Syria did not respond at the time.

Israel, though not officially acknowledging it was behind the strikes, has hinted it could strike again if more weapons are shipped. In another warning, Israel's defence chief said on Tuesday a Russian plan to supply sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria is a threat and signalled that Israel is prepared to use force to stop the delivery.

Russia has said it remains committed to the deal, despite US and Israeli objections.

Mr al-Moallem said he did not know if the missiles have reached Syria yet, but noted that they are defensive weapons.

"The people who are not planning to attack Syria are not scared of these missiles," he said. "Those who fear them are those who intend to attack Syria."

While the regime was portraying itself as willing to negotiate a peace deal, the political opposition seemed in disarray at its marathon talks in Istanbul that began last week and were to continue on Thursday.

On Wednesday, exasperated grass roots activists in Syria threatened to cut ties with the Syrian National Coalition if it doesn't end the internal wrangling and come up with a political strategy. Syria's main opposition group has long been accused of being out of touch with those on the ground in Syria.

It was not clear if and when the opposition would make a decision on whether to attend the Geneva talks. In a statement late on Wednesday, it demanded among other things that Hizbollah fighters and Iranian advisers be expelled from Syria, but it was not clear if these were conditions for attending the talks.

Hizbollah has been fighting alongside regime troops, and the militia's growing role has been highlighted since the May 19 start of an offensive against the rebel-held western Syrian town of Qusair.

Pro-Assad forces have gained ground in Qusair, though rebels have been able to hang on to some of their positions.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said Hizbollah's growing involvement marks a dangerous escalation.

"We demand that Hizbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately," she said.

Asked if Iran should be invited to the Geneva conference, she said the final decision would have to be made together with other international partners and the UN.

"That decision has not yet been made," she said. "But let me say and take this opportunity to say that Iran has not played a constructive role in regard to Syria. They have sent weapons. They have sent money. They have provided fighters. They have financed Hizbollah. And we have no reason to believe that Iran wants a peaceful transition."

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there are concerns an Iranian presence would be counterproductive, and that Tehran would try to leverage the Syria crisis to win international acquiescence in its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

On Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council called for an urgent investigation into alleged abuses by regime troops and Hizbollah fighters in Qusair. The resolution, backed by the US, Turkey and Qatar, also condemned the presence of foreign fighters supporting Mr Assad.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said in a statement that "Syria is disintegrating before our eyes", and that radicalism fed by chaos "increasingly threatens regional security". In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Syria's civil war "reflects a colossal failure to protect civilians".

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