BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed on Monday remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Assad should be included in negotiations to reach a political transition, saying “declarations from outside do not concern us”.
In a Sunday CBS interview, Kerry did not repeat the standard U.S. line that Assad had lost all legitimacy over the shattering civil war in Syria and so had to go. “We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said when asked whether the United States would be willing to negotiate with the Syrian leader.
Assad said in comments broadcast on Syrian state television:
“We are still hearing the declarations and we should wait for actions and then decide.”
Kerry said the United States and other countries, which he did not name, were exploring ways to revive the diplomatic process to end the conflict in Syria, which has left more than 200,000 people dead and displaced about half the population.
“What we’re pushing for is to get him (Assad) to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that,” Kerry said.
Assad said that any international change in attitude regarding Syria’s situation would be positive. But he reiterated that foreign countries should stop supporting terrorist groups in Syria, a term Damascus uses for insurgents who have been fighting the army and allied militia for four years.
“Any talk on the future of the Syrian president is for the Syrian people and all the declarations from outside do not concern us,” he said.
Washington has long insisted that Assad must be replaced through a negotiated, political transition, although the rise of a common enemy, ultra-radical insurgent group Islamic State, appears to have softened the West’s stance toward him.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said later on Sunday that Kerry was not specifically referring to Assad. She said Washington would never negotiate with the Syrian leader.
But the comments had already caused ripples among countries opposed to Assad. Commentators close to Gulf Arab governments opposed to his rule voiced alarm and dismay.
France, a major U.S. ally, said its position was unchanged and that Assad could not be part of a negotiated solution in Syria.
When asked about Kerry’s remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters: “Assad’s regime is the reason for all the problems in Syria.
“What is there to negotiate with Assad?” Cavusoglu said. “What will you negotiate with a regime which has killed more than 200,000 people and used chemical weapons? What result is achieved through negotiations so far today?”
Two rounds of peace talks last year in Geneva failed to halt the conflict, which started when peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 were cracked down on by security forces.
Russia, a close ally of Assad, invited on Monday the U.N. envoy for Syria to a second round of meetings scheduled for the beginning of April. The first round was shunned by key political opposition members and did not involve the main insurgent groups.
Reporting by Oliver Holmes, Samia Nakhoul and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Denis Pinchuk in Moscow, Angus McDowall and Noah Browning in Gulf region, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich