DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in remarks published Friday that his government will not negotiate with armed groups, calling them "terrorists" and saying they will only talk to political opposition.
Assad's comments to Spanish news agency EFE were published by Syria's state media Friday, a day after a conference in Saudi Arabia that sought to form a unified opposition front ahead of proposed talks on ending Syria's nearly five-year conflict.
A peace plan agreed to last month by world powers meeting in Vienna set a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of talks between Assad's government and opposition groups. Within six months, the negotiations are to establish a "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian" transitional government that would set a schedule for drafting a new constitution and holding a free and fair U.N.-supervised election within 18 months.
Saudi Arabia has been a key backer of Sunni opposition blocs pushing for Assad's ouster, such as the hard-line Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham groups that were at the two-day talks in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.
Assad told EFE that Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and some Western countries "want terrorist groups to join the negotiations table." He said they want his government to "negotiate with terrorists and this is a matter that I believe no one will accept."
The Syrian leader said "we are ready to start negotiations with the opposition ... and the opposition for any person in the world does not mean armed" groups.
The powerful Ahrar al-Sham group pulled out of the opposition conference in Saudi Arabia on Thursday in protest over the role given to groups it said are close to the Syrian government, signaling continued divisions among rival factions ahead of the proposed peace talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose country has been among Assad's strongest backers, said last month that peace talks for Syria cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorists and which are legitimate opposition.
"In principle we are ready for dialogue ... and in order for the dialogue to be successful you have deal with real national opposition that has a popular base in Syria," Assad said.