DAMASCUS : President Bashar al-Assad insisted in a meeting Wednesday with visiting 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 ME to muster support for proposed peace talks dubbed Geneva II. The Syrian leg of the tour is the most sensitive, as Brahimi needs to persuade a wary regime and an increasingly divided opposition to attend. During his last visit to Damascus in December, Brahimi was heavily criticised by Syrian media for asking Assad if he intended to step down at the end of his presidential term in mid-2014.
The Algerian’s latest meeting with Assad lasted less than one hour, and his spokeswoman only said he was hopeful that Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syria’s opposition, would take part in the proposed talks.
Assad flatly rejected that possibility, insisting that “the Syrian people are the only ones who have the right to decide on Syria’s future,” state media quoted him 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,” Assad 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,” the Syrian leader added.
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.
“The efforts being made for the Geneva conference to be held are focused on finding the way for the Syrians themselves to meet and to agree on solving the crisis as quickly as possible,” the envoy was quoted as saying.
In an interview this month, Assad himself 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 anyone who goes will be considered a traitor.
More than 115,000 people have been killed in the 31-month armed uprising against the Assad regime triggered by his forces’ bloody crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests.
Thousands still trapped in besieged town
The devastating war has also triggered a massive humanitarian crisis as people have fled or become trapped by the spiralling violence.
On Tuesday some 800 women, children and elderly civilians were evacuated from Moadamiyet al-Sham, said Wassim al-Ahmad of the council in the town southwest of Damascus.
Television footage showed the evacuees clutching a few personal belongings as they streamed out of the town along a dusty avenue, with Red Crescent staff carrying one elderly man and assisting another too frail to walk alone.
“All sides, without exception, took part (in the evacuation), including the opposition as represented by the National Coalition, the regime... and the international community,” said an opposition activist in the town.
But Ahmad said around another 6,000 civilians remained trapped.
Widespread malnutrition has been reported in Moadamiyet al-Sham, especially among children, because an almost year-long army siege that has blockaded the entry of food and other vital goods.
But activists there issued a statement saying they would have preferred humanitarian assistance to be brought in instead of being evacuated, “but we did not have a choice.”
Moadamiyet al-Sham was the scene of one of the army’s chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, which killed hundreds of people.
The civilians who left have now joined millions of people internally displaced by the war.
In another measure of Syria’s disintegration, the World Health Organisation confirmed 10 polio cases in the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, all of them in children under the age of two.