Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad has asserted that he does not plan to step down, sharpening the contest with the opposition, which has agreed to participate in Wednesday’s Geneva-2 talks, but after insisting that its engagement in a dialogue is meant to advance the President’s removal from power.

Talks between Mr. Assad and a visiting Russian parliamentary delegation have penciled the spotlight on the battle of wills between the Syrian government and the externally backed opposition that seems unrelenting in seeking “regime change” in Syria. In a dialogue with the visiting delegation, the Syrian President stressed that question of stepping down “is not under discussion,” The Voice of Russia reported. He added: "If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start." Mr. Assad signaled that he was likely to be in the fray when Syrian elections, which could result from the dialogue, starting under the Geneva-2 framework. "Only the Syrian people can decide who should take part in elections," he told the lawmakers.

Mr. Assad’s intent to deepen his political footing contrasts sharply with the aspiration of the opposition, which declared its readiness to participate in the Geneva-2 talks. Meeting in Istanbul, the Syrian National Coalition—a combination of several opposition groups - voted 58 votes to 14 with two abstentions and one blank to participate in the talks in Switzerland. The vote revealed that large sections of the coalition were apparently not on board as only 75 of the 120 delegates participated in the balloting. The coalition’s leader Ahmad Jarba announced that the umbrella organisation was participating in talks with the “sole aim of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power.”

The perceptions of the Syrian government and the opposition on the country’s future could not be more divergent. Far from stepping aside, Mr. Assad challenged the opposition to put up a candidate to demonstrate their popularity through the ballot in future elections.

"They claim that they have liberated 70% of the territory of Syria. So why shouldn't they take part in the elections and hope for the support of [the population in] the 70%" he asked.

As the countdown for Geneva-2 conference begins, the chances of participation by Iran-a country with significant regional influence-have dimmed. On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said during a telephonic conversation with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Tehran “will not accept any preconditions to attend the Geneva II conference on Syria,” Iran’s Press TV reported. The United Nations and Russia have strongly supported Iran’s participation, but the Americans object to Iran’s presence, unless Tehran signs up to an earlier agreement in Geneva, which calls for a political transition in Syria. Analysts say that Iran wants to distance itself from any formulation that can be interpreted as a call for President Assad to step down as a precondition for dialogue.

The conference in Switzerland will be held in two parts. The opening session on January 22 would take place in the Swiss resort of Montreux, but deliberations would shift to the UN office in Geneva two days later after a day’s break.

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