Syrian President Bashar al Assad said on Wednesday that any transitional government in Syria should include both the regime and opposition, as UN chief Ban Ki moon urged greater efforts to tackle the country’s refugee crisis.
In an interview published on Wednesday, Assad told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency it would be “logical for there to be independent forces, opposition forces and forces loyal to the government represented” in any transitional body.
Assad did not specify which opposition groups should be included in the government but the statement comes as Damascus faces pressure to compromise at UN-mediated talks aimed at ending the five-year conflict that has killed some 270,000 people.
In a sign of how high the stakes are, the UN chief exhorted a conference in Geneva “to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time” that has seen an estimated 4.8 million Syrians fleeing their homeland.
“There is no alternative to negotiating a political transition that will lead to a new Syria,” Ban said.
Talks led by Ban’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, paused last week, but the sides remained deadlocked over the fate of Assad, whom the opposition insists must leave power before a transitional government is agreed.
In the interview, Assad did not touch on his own future, saying only that the makeup of the transitional government should be agreed upon at the negotiations in Switzerland.
“There are many questions that need to be discussed in Geneva but these are not difficult questions,” Assad said.
“I don’t consider them difficult, they can all be resolved.”
Draft constitution ‘within weeks’
The US and Russia are pushing for a transitional government and draft constitution to be established by August, according to a plan agreed by world powers last year.
Assad said a preliminary draft version of the constitution could be drawn up “within a few weeks” but insisted that the country would only adopt a new constitution “after the Syrian people vote on it”.
Assad has been buoyed after his forces recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) jihadists over the weekend, in an advanced backed by Russian air strikes and special forces on the ground.
Soldiers on Wednesday were locked in heavy fighting with IS fighters in central Syria as they pressed their offensive following the seizure of the UNESCO world heritage site.
A ceasefire between Damascus and non-jihadist opposition forces has broadly held since February 27, prompting a glimmer of hope that a political solution might be on the horizon.
But the fighting has left vast swathes of the country in ruin and Assad estimated that economic and infrastructure damage to the country “exceeds $200 billion”.
The aim of the Geneva conference is to secure relocation pledges within three years for 10% of Syria’s refugees, or 480,000 people, whom the UN wants moved outside of Syria’s immediate neighbours and who are currently absorbing an enormous human burden.
Ban said the 480,000 figure was “a relatively small number”, compared with those being hosted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The Geneva meet follows a conference in London in February where nations pledged $11 billion (9.7 billion euros) to help manage one of the largest displacements of people since World War II.
More than one million migrants -- about half of them Syrians -- reached Europe via the Mediterranean last year, a rate of arrivals that has continued through the first three months of 2016.
Thousands have died making the harrowing journey, often on rickety boats run by people smugglers.
Some European states have temporarily shut borders and called for tough measures to stem the movement of people through the continent.
The British charity Oxfam on Tuesday noted that wealthy countries had so far only resettled 67,100 Syrian refugees -- a mere 1.39% of those forced to flee.