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Syria regime says Assad ouster ‘red line’ ahead of peace talks

uns syrian asad-2016GENEVA (AFP) – Syria’s warring sides clashed over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday.With the government vowing his ouster remains a “red line” for looming peace talks while the opposition vowed to see him go — dead or alive.

The UN-brokered, indirect negotiations due to begin in Geneva on Monday are the latest international push to find a solution to Syria’s five-year civil war, which has killed more than 270,000 people.

Government negotiators are expected in Geneva on Sunday, where delegates from the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) are already preparing.

But questions have been raised over whether the fresh talks will be more successful than the last round, which collapsed in February, as the two sides wrangled over the president’s future.

“We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency… Bashar al-Assad is a red line,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told a Damascus news conference.

“If they continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva,” he said.

The HNC has repeatedly called for Assad’s departure as a prerequisite for any deal, and chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush said the president must go for peace talks to stand a chance.

“We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall, or death, of Bashar al-Assad,” he told AFP in a joint interview in Geneva.

“It cannot start with the presence of the regime, or the head of this regime still in power.”

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has said the Geneva meetings would not last more than 10 days.

‘Assad stronger than ever’

The negotiations are set to cover the formation of a new government, a fresh constitution and UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.

Assad’s fate has been one of the main stumbling blocks in previous rounds, with key ally Russia rejecting any suggestion he should go while opposition-backer the US has called for him to step down.

Analysts have cast doubt on whether the latest efforts will be any more successful.

“Assad is stronger than ever and is going nowhere,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, adding the talks’ agenda “is not realistic”.

Muallem said the UN envoy had no right to “discuss presidential elections,” saying the talks aim to form a unity government to appoint a committee to either write a new constitution or amend the existing one.

“Then we will have a referendum for the Syrian people to decide on it,” he said.

The HNC has called for the creation of a transitional body with full executive powers, and Alloush said Muallem’s comments “show that the regime is not serious about the political process”.

There have also been questions about how far any deal would be felt on Syria’s battlefields,

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