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updated: 1/23/2014 9:43 AM

Syrian govt says terrorism, not talks is priority

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  • Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, points to a document during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the meeting saying that the peace talks will face "formidable" challenges for Syria. Ban called on the Syrian government and the opposition trying to overthrow it to negotiate in good faith.(AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

      Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, points to a document during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the meeting saying that the peace talks will face "formidable" challenges for Syria. Ban called on the Syrian government and the opposition trying to overthrow it to negotiate in good faith.(AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

 
Associated Press

MONTREUX, Switzerland -- Syria's government says fighting terrorism -- not peace talks -- is its priority, dismissing the Western-backed opposition and any attempts at outside intervention.

Thursday's comments from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem cast doubt on U.N. efforts this week to chart a path out of Syria's civil war.

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Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator, has said he would meet separately with both sides in Geneva a day after a testy opening to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

But al-Moallem, who is in Switzerland, said the Syrian National Coalition didn't represent the opposition and any efforts toward a political resolution to three years of fighting were premature.

The priority is "to fight terrorism and this paves the way for the start of the political process," he said, according to Syria's state news agency.

At another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Thursday for a new election in Syria, saying his nation would respect the results.

"The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria" and once the ballots are cast "we should all accept" the outcome, he said.

Iran, a close ally of Assad's, was barred from participating in the Swiss-based talks to end Syria's civil war

At least 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began with a peaceful uprising against Assad's rule, according to activists, who are the only ones still keeping count. The fighting in Syria has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, and taken on post-Cold War overtones with Russia and the United States backing opposite sides.

Signs of compromise were limited after 12 hours of meetings and speeches on Wednesday.

"We don't have any illusions, all they have done so far is ignore reality, reject everything and deceive," said Burhan Ghalyoun, a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. The opposition group, which has little influence among rebel fighters within Syria, wavered until the last minute on whether to attend the talks in Switzerland at all.

Ghalyoun said he expected little from the talks on Friday, which were intended to be the first face-to-face negotiations between Assad's representatives and members of the rebellion.

Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, said Wednesday that his government had offered a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo and had yet to hear back from the Americans. U.S. officials have described that as "a capitulation initiative" in the war's most contested city, and not a truce. And rebels within Syria say the government has used past cease-fires to buy time or consolidate gains.

U.S. and U.N. officials said merely getting the two sides in the same room Wednesday was something of a victory, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's claim that the discussions were "harmonious and constructive" was at odds with the palpable tensions throughout the day.

Brahimi said Thursday's private meetings would determine the next steps -- and whether the two sides were ready to sit in the same room.

"As for how quickly we can reach results that would bring happiness and return hope to the Syrian people ... this I cannot tell you," he said.

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