Assad tells Russians he plans to stay in power

Syrian president rejects stepping down ahead of peace talks brokered by Washington and Moscow

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad:  issue of stepping down will not be discussed at peace conference. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad: issue of stepping down will not be discussed at peace conference. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Mon, Jan 20, 2014, 01:00

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was yesterday quoted as telling Russian parliamentarians he has no intention of stepping down and the issue will not be discussed at this week’s peace conference attended by the government, opposition and envoys from 35 countries.

“If he wanted to surrender, we would have surrendered from the start,” Interfax news agency reported him as saying. This was subsequently denied by the presidency.

US secretary of state John Kerry has said the objective of the meeting is to form a transitional authority which would not leave Dr Assad in power, a stance adopted by the political opposition and insurgents.

Making all the more unlikely that the three-year-old conflict will end soon, Saudi-backed fundamentalist insurgents have dismissed the conference as “hollow” in response to the decision by the Saudi-supported expatriate opposition National Coalition to attend.

Abou Omar, spokesman for the largest and most effective of the Syrian fundamentalist alliances, the six-member Islamic Front, said Syria’s future would be “formulated here on the ground of heroism, and signed with blood on the front lines, not in hollow conferences attended by those who don’t even represent themselves”.

The contradictory lines adopted by Saudi-sponsored regime opponents appear to reflect a split in the royal family between the more moderate camp of King Abdullah and hardliners around his nephew Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Bodes ill
This development bodes ill for the US-Russian-sponsored conference set to convene in Montreux on Wednesday and Thursday with the aim of initiating dialogue between the government and the opposition. The 15-member opposition delegation will contain nine members from the coalition, two from the ethnic Kurds, two from rebel groups and two from opposition groups in Syria.

Ahead of the conference the government has followed a two-track policy. In a conciliatory gesture, food and medical aid was permitted into the besieged Palestinian refugee camp in the Yarmouk suburb of Damascus where 18,000 residents have suffered severe privation since November and 15 people have died of malnutrition. About 100 ailing inhabitants have been evacuated.

At the same time pressure has been maintained on insurgent forces by warplanes and helicopters in Aleppo city and the nearby countryside. Up to 130,000 people have been estimated killed and a quarter of Syrians driven from their homes during the conflict.