Syrian government negotiators: Bashar al-Assad is “a red line” for peace talks

Walid al-Muallem’s comments were met with anger by the opposition, who accused the foreign minister of ‘halting the talks before they even start’. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA

The Syrian government has said that peace talks will fail if any party tries to discuss the presidency in a transition government, calling the incumbent president, Bashar al-Assad, a “red line”.

The comments made by Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, at a Saturday press conference before the UN-led the talks on Monday have put “the nails in the coffin” of the peace process before it even starts, the opposition said.

A delegation from the Syrian government is heading to Geneva on Sunday, but will not stay for more than 24 hours if the opposition does not show up.

“We will not talk to anyone who talks about the position of the presidency. Bashar [al-Assad] is a red line; the property of the Syrian people,” Muallem said during the televised news conference in Damascus. “I advise them that if this is [the opposition’s] thinking, they shouldn’t come to the talks. They must abandon these delusions.”

A spokesperson for the opposition reacted angrily to Muallem’s comments which he said were “halting the talks before they start”.

Monzer Makhous of the opposition said they “will only accept the formation of a transitional governing body” within six months.

The Syrian government also adopted a confrontational stance with the UN. Muallem rejected comments made by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, who said presidential elections will be held within 18 months. “Neither he nor anyone else has the right to talk about presidential elections. This is an exclusive right of the Syrian people,” he said.

Muallem added that De Mistura had “no right to propose an agenda”, but added that all sides are still committed to the ceasefire which has broadly held for the past two weeks.

The last round of indirect talks collapsed on 3 February over a Russian-backed government offensive in Aleppo.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, earlier said that negotiations should go ahead despite perceived truce violations by Syrian government forces.

A Syrian Islamist rebel group on Saturday shot down a regime warplane over a village in central Hama province, a monitoring group said.

A pro-government Facebook page acknowledged that a MiG-21 warplane went down over Kafr Nabuda, but said it was due to “technical difficulties”, denying it had been shot down.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jet fighter crashed in government-held territory but that the fate of its crew remained unknown.

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