DAMASCUS, Syria – A top Syrian official said on Wednesday that the opposition must 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."
A transitional government is the centerpiece of the peace program that the United States, Russia and other world powers agreed on at a 2012 Geneva Conference. The terms have been intentionally left vague and are supposed to be worked out in negotiations resuming this week — but the presumption, at least in the opposition's mind, is that a transitional government means one without President Bashar Assad.
"This will not happen, not now, nor tomorrow nor ever," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said of opposition's calls for Assad's departure. He 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 the opposition demand for a transitional ruling body. 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"We believe such an idea has failed, it is outdated, it will never be acceptable.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.
He said most of the world except Saudi Arabia and Turkey — the two top backers of the rebellion — have all but relinquished calls for the Syrian leader to step down, having realized after five years of war that Assad is fighting "terrorists" in the country.
"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 make 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."