AFP – Western leaders have hailed a decision by Syria’s opposition to attend an international peace conference next week alongside representatives of a regime they despise and remain determined to overthrow.
After weeks of hesitation and threats to boycott the talks, the deeply divided National Coalition said it will go to Switzerland, with the sole aim of toppling President Bashar Al-Assad.
The Syrian leader was quoted on Sunday as saying his departure is not up for discussion, in a Russian media report that his office quickly denied.
“If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start,” Assad told Russian parliament members during a meeting in Damascus, according to Interfax news agency.
“This issue is not under discussion. Only the Syrian people can decide who should take part in elections,” said Assad, whose has ruled over Syria since 2000 after the death of his father and veteran strongman Hafez Al-Assad.
But the presidency in Damascus said the comments published by Interfax were “inaccurate”, without elaborating.
Assad’s brands its opponents as “terrorists”, but it has made concessions ahead of the conference that opens on Wednesday.
The Geneva II meeting aims to set up a transitional government to end a brutal war estimated to have killed more than 130,000 people and forced millions from their homes in nearly three years.
US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the opposition’s “courageous” decision to attend the talks, describing it as a “path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians”.
“We all know that the process ahead will be difficult, but I say directly to the Syrian people: we will stand by you every mile of the journey as you seek to achieve the freedom and dignity that all Syrians deserve,” he said in remarks echoed by Britain, France and Germany.
The Coalition voted Saturday by 58 to 14 to attend the peace conference, with only 75 of the around 120 delegates taking part in the secret ballot — a sign that strong disagreement persists.
Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said the group was going to Switzerland only for the purpose of removing the “butcher” Assad from power.
“The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution… and first and foremost stripping the butcher [Assad] of all his powers,” he said.
The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Selim Idriss, called for a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict, and urged the opposition to uphold the “goals of the revolution” and remove Assad and his cronies from power.
The FSA, the armed wing of the Coalition, is the main rebel group in Syria, but it has been greatly marginalised by the emergence of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
Syria ally Iran — which has not been invited to attend the talks — said participants at the forum must adopt “realistic” decisions and ensure that jihadists are weakened, media said quoting a top official.
Coalition member Munzer Aqbiq said the opposition would form within 24 a delegation made up of diplomats, politicians, FSA representatives and legal experts.
The Coalition has been under intense pressure from its Western and Arab backers to attend the talks.
The regime said it will send a high-level delegation, and has offered concessions ahead of the talks, including a prisoner swap and a security plan for the battered northern city of Aleppo.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus was determined to ensure the talks were a success, and sent a letter to the United Nations saying the conference is about getting rid of extremists.
Kerry dismissed the concessions, saying “nobody is going to be fooled”.
“They can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions, the bottom line is we are going to Geneva to implement Geneva I, and if Assad doesn’t do that he will invite greater response,” he said.
More than 35 countries will gather in the Swiss cities of Montreux and Geneva from Wednesday for the peace talks, as reports from Syria spoke of more bloodletting and infighting among rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime jets and helicopters pounded Aleppo and the surrounding countryside on Saturday, killing 34 people.
Clashes raged between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and other rebel groups opposed to the brutal tactics of the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in Aleppo province, said the monitor.