Syria rebuffs US calls for Assad to step down

A U.S.-backed Syrian peace conference got off to a rocky start Wednesday, after the Syrian government angrily rebuffed the Obama administration's calls for President Bashar Assad to step down.

The top Syrian envoy told foreign ministers assembled for the talks the rebels the U.S. is backing are terrorists who need to be dealt with aggressively. And Russia's foreign minister, who organized the talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, urged all parties not to “predetermine the outcome.”

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“We have come here to put an end to terrorism and its bitter consequences,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, according to The Washington Post. “Diplomacy and terrorism cannot go in parallel. Diplomacy must succeed by fighting terrorism.”

The comments reflect the Assad regime's desire to position themselves as a legitimate power fighting international terrorism, an argument the Obama administration has rejected. 

Kerry reiterated the Obama administration's position that Assad has no future, as Syrians negotiate a transitional government after almost three years of war.

“We need to deal with reality here,” Kerry said in his intervention at the conference in Montreux, Switzerland. “Mutual consent, which is what has brought us here, for a transition government means that that government cannot be formed with someone that is objected to by one side or the other.

"That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” Kerry said.

Kerry called on the assembled diplomats from more than 30 countries to show a united front to end a war that has already cost more than 130,000 lives.

Real negotiations however aren't expected to start until Friday, when Assad's envoys and the rebels are scheduled to begin face-to-face talks in Geneva with help from U.N. mediators.

“Millions of people are relying on the international community’s ability to help find a solution that can save their lives and their country,” Kerry said. “And we see only one option: a negotiated transition government formed by mutual consent.” 

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