Syria talks open in London with call for rebel unity
Arab and Western powers met in London Tuesday to push Syrian oppsition leaders to attend talks in Geneva next month, but President Bashar al-Assad poured cold water on hopes of any peace deal.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the London meeting was aimed at persuading Syria's fractious rebels to have a "united position" for the UN-backed conference in the Swiss city, pencilled in for November 23.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is at the talks along with Hague and counterparts from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, together with opposition leaders.
"The political process, assembling a peace conference in Geneva with the participation of the regime and the opposition, is the main focus of our meeting today," Hague told Sky News as the ministers gathered.
The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Syrian National Coalition, has already said it opposes the Geneva conference and threatened to quit the umbrella opposition group if Assad's regime takes part in the Geneva 2 conference.
Opposition representatives are due to meet in early November to thrash out their differences.
"So we are meeting ahead of that to encourage them to have a united position, to show that those in the world among Westerners and Arab nations who understand and sympathise with their position in Syria have a united position, that they should go to the Geneva peace talks and stop the blood and talk together as Syrians," Hague told BBC radio.
"The longer this conflict goes on, the most sectarian it becomes and the more extremists are able to take hold, that is why we are making this renewed effort to get the Geneva peace process going."
The United States and Russia have been trying to organise the Geneva conference on the heels of the deal they reached for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons in the wake of a deadly poison gas attack in August.
But Assad dealt an early blow to peace hopes, saying in an interview Monday that he was willing to run for re-election in 2014 and that the factors are not in place for the Geneva 2 conference to succeed.
"No time has been set, and the factors are not yet in place if we want (Geneva 2) to succeed," Assad told Lebanon-based pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Mayadeen.
"Which forces are taking part? What relation do these forces have with the Syrian people? Do these forces represent the Syrian people, or do they represent the states that invented them?" Assad asked in typically defiant fashion.
Assad says no reason he shouldn't run for president
In the lengthy interview, Assad also said he was willing to run for re-election in 2014.
"Personally, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't run in the next election," Assad declared.
Kerry said the Syrian opposition would never agree to Assad staying in power.
"He has bombed and gassed people in his country... How can that man claim to rule under any legitimacy in the future?" Kerry said after talks with Arab League officials in Paris.
More than 115,000 people have been killed in the conflict that erupted in March 2011 when Assad's forces brutally cracked down on popular protests.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius agreed that the meeting in London should discuss a transitional process for Syria "in which Bashar al-Assad can play no role", according to a statement from the foreign ministry in Paris.
Hague meanwhile said Iran -- a key Damascus ally -- could also play a role in the Geneva talks if it backed the need for a transitional government in Syria.
He said he had discussed Syria with the new Iranian foreign minister as part of warming ties between Tehran and London.
"I have put it to him that he and Iran should be starting from the same position as the rest of us, from last year's Geneva agreement, which is that there should be a transitional governement in Syria made up of regime and opposition by mutual consent.
"If Iran could start from that position as well as the rest of us, then Iran will be more easily included in international discussions on this subject."
© 2013 AFP