BEIRUT – Syria's foreign minister laid out a hard line Wednesday, insisting that Bashar Assad will remain Syria's president at least until elections in 2014 and might run for another term, terms that will make it difficult for Syria's opposition to agree to U.N.-sponsored talks on ending Syria's civil war.
Walid al-Moallem also said that any deal reached in such talks would have to be put to a referendum, raising a new condition that could complicate efforts by the U.S. and Russia to bring the two sides together in Geneva, possibly next month.
In an interview with the Lebanese TV station Al-Mayadeen, the Syrian foreign minister also warned that Syria "will retaliate immediately" if Israel strikes Syrian soil again. Earlier this month, Israeli warplanes struck near the Syrian capital, Damascus, targeting purported Iranian missiles intended for Assad's ally Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia.
Al-Moallem's comments highlighted the wide gaps between the regime and the opposition on the terms of the Geneva talks, the international community's only plan at the moment for trying to end the civil war. The opposition has demanded that Assad's departure from power top the agenda of any peace talks.
The Syrian foreign minister said Assad will remain in his post at least until scheduled elections in 2014.
"From now until the next elections, President Bashar Assad is president of the Syrian Arab Republic," he said. "Will Assad run in 2014 or not? This depends on the circumstances in 2014 and on the popular will. If the people want him to run, he will run. If the people don't want that, I don't think he will. Let us not jump the gun."
The United States and its allies have repeatedly called on Assad to step down. Al-Moallem said that "Americans have no business in deciding who will run Syria," adding that this "would be a precedent in international relations that we must not allow."
The foreign minister also said that "anything agreed on in Geneva will be held to a referendum in Syria."
"If it wins the support of the Syrian people, we will go ahead with it," he said.