DAMASCUS: President Bashar al-Assad insisted in a meeting on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) with visiting United Nations (UN)-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that Syrians alone will decide on the fate of an initiative for Geneva peace talks.
The encounter came a day after the Red Crescent evacuated hundreds of civilians from a besieged town near Damascus, in an operation that saw rare cooperation among the regime, its opponents and the international community.
Brahimi has been travelling the Middle East since mid-October to muster support for proposed peace talks dubbed Geneva II.
On Thursday, he is due to meet opposition members in Damascus tolerated by the regime and travel to Lebanon the following day.
The Syrian leg of the tour is the most sensitive, as the veteran Algerian diplomat needs to persuade a wary regime and an increasingly divided opposition to attend.
During his last visit to Damascus in December, Brahimi was heavily criticized by Syrian media for asking Assad if he intended to step down at the end of his presidential term in mid-2014.
Wednesday’s meeting with Assad lasted less than one hour, and the president criticized foreign interference in his country.
“The Syrian people are the only ones who have the right to decide on Syria’s future,” state media quoted Assad as telling Brahimi.
“Putting an end to support for the terrorists and pressuring the states that support them is the most important step to prepare . . . for dialogue,” he said, using his regime’s term for rebels.
“The success of any political solution is linked to putting an end to support funnelled to terrorist groups.”
Brahimi’s spokeswoman earlier said he hoped Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the rebels, would take part in the proposed talks.
State television reported that Brahimi agreed with Assad that Syrians themselves need to find a solution to the conflict that has been ravaging the country since March 2011.
In an interview this month, Assad cast doubt on the possibility of his regime attending, saying he would not negotiate with any group tied to the rebels or to foreign states.
The main opposition National Coalition has said it will refuse to take part in any talks unless Assad’s resignation is on the table, and some rebel groups have warned participants will be considered traitors.