AP INTERVIEW: Top Syrian official rules out Assad departure

AP News
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Posted: Apr 13, 2016 5:15 PM
AP INTERVIEW: Top Syrian official rules out Assad departure

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A top Syrian official said on Wednesday that the opposition has to let go of its "dream" for a transitional government, saying that such a thing amounts to a coup d'etat and "will never be accepted."

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said most of the world with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Turkey — two strong backers of insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar Assad — have all but relinquished calls for the Syrian leader to step down, having realized after five years of war that he was fighting against "terrorists" in the country.

"This will not happen, not now, nor tomorrow nor ever," he said, in response to the opposition's calls for Assad's departure.

Mekdad spoke to The Associated Press in Damascus Wednesday, ahead of the resumption of indirect peace talks in Geneva which the U.N. envoy says will focus on a political transition.

Assad recently floated the idea of a national unity government, rejecting a key opposition demand for a transitional ruling body with full powers which major powers agreed on at a Geneva conference in June 2012. Mekdad echoed the rejection Wednesday.

"We believe such an idea has failed, it is outdated, it will never be acceptable. This amounts in fact to a coup d'etat. People organize a certain rebellion and then they get power. This will never happen in Syria," he said.

"We believe that if we have to proceed then we need to forget or we need others to forget the dreams they had for the last five years and to come with factual actual solutions to the problem," he said. "This includes the possibility of establishing a national unity government or a broad government that includes members of the opposition."

"President Bashar Assad has become a guarantor for the existence of Syria, and for the unity of Syria's territory and people... this is why those dreaming of this must stop," he said, adding that divisions among the opposition "makes it impossible to negotiate a viable agreement."

He acknowledged that the Syrian government recently released Kevin Patrick Dawes, an American freelance photographer it was holding in detention for three years for illegally entering the country, handing him over to Russia.

"If we wanted to apply the laws he would still be in Syria but the Syrian leadership based on a purely humanitarian initiative and based on a request from our friends in Moscow decided to release him," he said. He added that the Syrian government has informed U.S. officials that Austin Tice, a journalist taken hostage in Syria in 2012, is not in Syria.

He added: "Austin Tice is not in the hands of Syrian authorities and we don't have any information about him at all."

The U.S. doesn't know where Tice is or who is holding him. Last week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. continues to work through Czech officials in Syria to get information on his welfare and whereabouts as well as that of an unknown number of other U.S. citizens missing or detained in Syria.