Saturday, June 23, 2018

Syrian foreign minister calls on rebels to disarm and negotiate

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria's foreign minister invited the country's rebels on Saturday to lay down their weapons and take part in a national dialogue, saying everyone who participates will be included in a new Cabinet with wide executive powers.

Walid al-Moallem said in a live interview on state TV that any opposition parties could join the Cabinet as long as they reject foreign intervention in Syria. The Syrian government has started contacting "representatives of the Syrian people," he added.

This month, President Bashar Assad dismissed calls that he step down, vowing to keep fighting the rebels. Assad also proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution — concessions offered previously over the course of the uprising that began in March 2011. The opposition says that Assad can play no role in a resolution to the conflict.

"I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?" al-Moallem said in the hourlong interview. "Those who want foreign intervention will not be among us."

He accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of arming and financing the rebels in Syria. He said that Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group that the United States has declared a terrorist organization but which fights alongside Syrian rebels, had brought fighters from 27 countries to fight in Syria.

Last month, the international envoy tasked with Syria's crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed a plan to end Syria's war with a cease-fire followed by the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held.

Brahimi did not mention Assad by name, but said the transitional government would have "full executive powers" and would replace the Syrian leader. The plan was unveiled by world powers at an international conference in Geneva in June. Al-Moallem said that the Geneva conference does not require Assad to leave power.

The interview came as activists reported violence in different areas of Syria.

In the northern province of Idlib, Syrian troops fought intense battles Saturday against rebels who are trying to capture two military bases in the northwest and step up their attacks on army compounds elsewhere in the country, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the rebels destroyed at least one tank near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

Also in Turkey on Saturday, members of the newly restructured Syrian opposition held a conference in Istanbul aiming to nominate representatives for a transitional government.

The group, known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was formed in Qatar in November amid international pressure to unite factions within the opposition.

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