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Updated: Wed, 22 Jan 2014 06:02:59 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Syrian opposition speaks at peace talks



Syrian National Coalition President Ahmed al-Jarba arrives at Geneva International airport, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Al-Jarba arrived for the Geneva 2 talks on Syria. (© AP Photo/Salvatore Di Nolfi, pool)

Syrian National Coalition President Ahmed al-Jarba arrives at Geneva International airport, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Al-Jarba arrived for the Geneva 2 talks on Syria. (AP Photo/Salvatore Di Nolfi, pool) Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool/The Associated Press

The head of Syria's Western-backed opposition said any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad staying in power will effectively end peace talks before they have begun.

Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said the purpose of the peace conference beginning Wednesday in Switzerland was to set up a transitional government.

He said "this is the only topic for us," speaking minutes after Assad's foreign minister.

Syria's foreign minister, directly addressing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, says no one has the right to remove Bashar Assad except Syrians.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem addressed the Wednesday opening of a peace conference on Syria just after Kerry, who said Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead and would have no place in a transitional government.

Al-Moallem also refused to give up the podium to Ban Ki-moon, telling the United Nations chief: "You live in New York, I live in Syria."

'Formidable' challenges

When opening the peace talks, Ban said Syrians bear the primary responsibility for ending the civil war in their country and acknowledged that the talks face "formidable" challenges.

Ban Ki-moon called on the Syrian government and the Western-backed opposition trying to overthrow it to negotiate in good faith as they meet face-to-face for the first time.

"We know that it has been an extremely difficult path to reach this point. We have lost valuable time and many, many lives. Let me not mince words, the challenges before you and before all of us are formidable. But your presence here raises hope," he said in his opening remarks.

The world's most powerful diplomats — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart — gathered in Montreux, Switzerland, for the talks, which had been in doubt just two days ago.

But the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group representing the opposition, is in disarray, with little influence on rebel brigades fighting in Syria.

Kerry said there is no way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be part of a transitional government that's being discussed at the international conference.

Kerry said that Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead after an "appalling assault" on his people and cannot regain that legitimacy.

Kerry said the meeting, which is aimed at forming a transitional government for Syria, poses a serious challenge for the world as it marks the beginning of "tough and complicated negotiations." He urged countries present to unite around bringing an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.

Slim hopes, Iran president says

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said he believes there is little hope of success for the Syrian peace talks.

According to the presidential website, Rouhani said hopes are slim because some of the countries attending the talks "are behind instability" in Syria.

Rouhani spoke in the wake of a diplomatic snub to Iran after the United Nations withdrew its invitation to Tehran to attend the talks.

Iran has been Assad's main regional ally and a staunch supporter of his government.

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