DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government said Wednesday it will participate in U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the country's civil war, but insisted that it is not going to the conference to hand over power.
The United Nations on Monday announced that the long-delayed peace talks will begin Jan. 22 in Geneva. The meeting, which would be the first face-to-face talks between President Bashar Assad's government and its opponents since the Syrian war began, has raised hopes that a resolution to a conflict that activists say has killed more than 120,000 people could be within reach.
In Tehran, the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers called for a ceasefire as soon as possible, saying that a halt in fighting would enhance chances of peace talks succeeding. Even the most modest attempts to stop the war in Syria, now in its third year, have failed. The two ministers declined to give details of the latest ceasefire efforts when they talked to reporters at a joint press conference Wednesday.
The continued bloodletting is but one of huge hurdles that remains ahead of talks. There is also no decision on the full list of participants.
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group has said it is ready to attend, but wants the government to establish humanitarian corridors and release political prisoners as a confidence-building measure.
"We have presented in our last coalition meeting a clear complete vision regarding going to (the conference) and it was approved with the consensus of the coalition and now we are ready within this spirit to go to Geneva," Ahmad al-Jarba, chief of the Syrian National Coalition, told reporters. He reiterated the coalition's stance that it sees the conference as leading to a transitional government.
In a statement Wednesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry confirmed the government will attend, saying Assad will send an official delegation to the Geneva conference. The ministry stressed that the representatives "will be going to Geneva not to hand over power to anyone" but to meet with those "who support a political solution for Syria's future."
The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters insist that Assad cannot be part of a transitional government.
In a jab at Britain and France, the Foreign Ministry said that if Paris and London "insist on holding fast to these illusions" that there is no place for Assad in a transitional period, then "there is no need for them to attend Geneva 2."
"Our people will not allow anyone to steal their right to decide their future and leadership and the main goal of the Geneva conference is to fulfill the interests of the Syrian people alone, and not those who shed their blood," the statement said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, speaking in Damascus Wednesday, said "the Syrian people alone will decide upon their future and their leaders" and will not allow any meddling.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the end goal of the Geneva gathering next year must be a transitional government.
She rejected the Assad government's reference to this objective as "foreign demands."
"The goal of Geneva has nothing to do with foreign demands," Psaki said. "It has to do with bringing an end to the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people."
Previous attempts to bring Syria's government and opposition to the negotiating table have failed. The disputes have centered on who should represent the two sides, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table, and — above all — whether Assad will remain in office in the future.
Syrian officials say Assad will not surrender power and may even run again in elections due in mid-2014.
His government has bolstered its negotiating position with a string of victories over the past month, capturing several rebel-held suburbs on the southern fringe of Damascus and two towns outside the northern city of Aleppo.
On Wednesday, forces loyal to Assad clashed with rebels trying to break a government blockade of opposition-held suburbs east of the capital, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said at least 17 rebels were killed along with an unknown of pro-government fighters.
There was no word on the clashes from Syrian state media.
The Observatory said the fighting was focused in the village of Marj in the eastern Ghouta area, and pitted rebels from two al-Qaida-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, against government troops and its Shiite allies from the Lebanese Hezbollah group and the Iraqi Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington, Steve Negus in Cairo and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.