BEIRUT (AP) — 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, conditions that will make it difficult for Syria's opposition to agree to U.N.-sponsored talks on ending Syria's civil war.
Any deal reached in such talks would have to be put to a referendum, Walid al-Moallem said in a TV interview, introducing a new condition that could complicate efforts by the U.S. and Russia to bring the two sides together at an international conference in Geneva, possibly next month.
The wide-ranging comments by al-Moallem, , a regime stalwart with decades in top positions, reflected a new confidence by Assad's government, which had seemed near collapse during a rebel offensive last summer but has scored a number of battlefield successes in recent weeks.
"Our armed forces have regained the momentum," the foreign minister said. He suggested that the regime is digging in. Asked by Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen station when the civil war might end, he said: "That depends on when the patience of those conspiring against Syria will run out."
The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, turned into an armed insurgency in response to a harsh regime crackdown and escalated into a civil war. The fighting has killed more than 70,000 people, uprooted more than 5 million and devastated large areas of the country.
The conflict has taken on strong sectarian overtones — most of the armed rebels are Sunni Muslims, a majority in Syria, while Assad has retained core support among the country's minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiite Muslims.
Al-Moallem spoke at a time when Syria's fractured political opposition was bogged down in internal power struggles. The main, exile-based umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, has met for the past week in Istanbul, Turkey, to expand representation, choose new leaders and devise a strategy for Geneva talks.
The coalition spent most of that time arguing about membership issues, drawing a warning Wednesday from exasperated grassroots activists in Syria that they would cut ties with unless the political leadership changes course.
Leading opposition members have said they would only attend the Geneva talks if Assad's departure from power tops the agenda, a demand on which sponsors Russia and the U.S. appear to disagree and which derailed efforts a year ago to negotiate an end to the civil war.
In an apparent reflection of the continued gaps between the sides, a date for the conference, its detailed objectives and list of participants have not been announced.
Al-Moallem's comments highlighted those gaps.
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 West, including the United States, has 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.
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 ally Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia.
The regime's assertion comes as Syria's opposition movement finds itself in disarray over whether to attend the upcoming talks.
Syrian grassroots activists threatened Wednesday to cut ties with the main exile-based opposition group after it got bogged down in a week of internal power struggles instead of devising a strategy for the possible peace talks.
That has raised more troubling questions about the Geneva conference, including who would represent those trying to bring down Assad and what mandate would they have.
A further sticking point arose Wednesday, with Iran, an Assad ally, seemingly angling for an invitation. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that his government "supports Geneva talks and U.N. efforts."
However, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the West fears that an Iranian presence would be counterproductive, and that Tehran would try to leverage the Syria crisis to win international acquiescence in its suspected nuclear weapons program.
"As far as we're concerned, our fear is that there would be a merging of the Syrian problem and the Iranian nuclear problem," Fabius told Radio France. "We fear that if they (the Iranians) are present at the conference on Syria, that they could cause delays in a way that a blackmailing situation would arise in which case perhaps they'll say they'll allow a resolution in the Syrian crisis but on condition that we allow them to make nuclear weapons."
Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
The main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, began meetings a week ago in Istanbul, Turkey, to expand its decision-making bodies, choose a new leader and devise a joint position on the Geneva talks.
Instead, the group has spent most of that time on the membership issues, with rivalries between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over influence apparently playing out in the background.
On Wednesday, the Revolutionary Movement in Syria, an umbrella organization of activist groups from across the country, issued what it called a final warning, threatening to withdraw its backing for the coalition if it doesn't come up with a political strategy.
The loss of support would have little practical effect, but would deal another symbolic blow to Syria's main opposition group, which has long been accused of being out of touch with those on the ground in Syria.
In other developments, the Syrian opposition urged the European Union to quickly supply rebel fighters with weapons, after the 27-country bloc decided earlier this week to let its arms embargo against Syria expire.
The decision paved the way for individual countries to send weapons to Assad's outgunned opponents. However, the EU's move may have little impact on the conflict since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
Britain and France, the main military powers in the EU, had pushed for lifting the embargo. They have argued that Europe's threat of arming the rebels in the future would force Assad to negotiate in good faith. Critics have warned that with both sides still convinced they can win militarily, such a strategy could quickly backfire,
The French foreign minister said Wednesday that lifting the embargo doesn't mean immediate weapons shipments. "But it's an option if the situation demands to re-establish a better defensive balance," Fabius said.
Russia, an Assad ally, harshly criticized Europe's decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts the Geneva conference. Moscow also renewed its pledge to supply Assad's regime with advanced missiles, which could transform an already brutal conflict into an East-West proxy fight.
The Syrian rebels seek anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to challenge Assad's tanks and warplanes.
However, Washington and many of its European allies have been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons, fearing they could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that have emerged as the most effective and organized fighting force on the opposition's side.