Syria peace talks: John Kerry leads calls for removal of President Assad
The US Secretary of State John Kerry has said President Bashar al-Assad can have no place in a transitional government as delegates clashed on the opening day of the Syria peace talks.
The summit, which is being held in Montreux, Switzerland, is discussing the Geneva II document, which lays out a political transition plan for Syria that is hoped will bring the bloody three-year conflict to an end.
Chaired by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the talks have brought together members of the Syrian regime and opposition for the first time since 2011. However, there was little in the way of a conciliatory tone from either side as the future of President Assad featured prominently in the summit's opening speeches.
Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, demanded that President Assad be removed from office, and accused the regime's forces of supporting al-Qa'ida on the ground in Syria.
He also urged President Assad's delegation to “immediately” transfer “total” power to an interim governing body, as bitter accusations from both sides marred the beginning of peace talks.
Earlier, Mr Kerry had said that President Assad could have no place in a transitional government. "We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent. That means that Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern."
The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, accused Western-backed states of worsening the situation by arming opposition forces and supporting terrorism in the country, while he accused the opposition fighters themselves of being traitors.
In his opening remarks, during which he clashed with Mr Ban over whether he had exceeded the 20-minute time period allocated to each speaker, Mr Muallem also said some of the states attending the summit had "Syrian blood on their hands".
Directly addressing Mr Kerry, he said that only Syrians had the right to remove President Bashar Assad.
At the sidelines of the UN-led talks, Syria's Information Minister told journalists that Mr Assad will not step down.
Diplomats from the world’s most powerful countries have gathered for the talks. Around 40 foreign ministers will address the summit today ahead of direct Syrian talks, which are due to begin in Geneva on Friday.
Mr Ban told delegates that Syrians are responsible for the “formidable” challenge of ending the civil war in their country.
He urged President Assad’s government and the Western-backed opposition fighters to enter into negotiations in good faith as they meet in person for the first time.
“We know that it has been an extremely difficult path to reach this point. We have lost valuable time and many, many lives,” Mr Ban said.
“Let me not mince words, the challenges before you and before all of us are formidable. But your presence here raises hope,” he added in his opening speech.
But the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group representing the opposition, is in disarray, with little influence on rebel brigades fighting in Syria.
Iran, which is one of President Assad's major backers, was excluded from the talks on Monday, and has already said the talks will fail.
The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported that President Hassan Rouhani said that hopes for the talks succeeding are slim “because of the lack of influential players in the meeting.”