Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office as soon as a transitional authority is set up, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saturday, insisting there is no way he can retain power.
Talks between the regime and Syrian opposition, due to resume next week in Geneva, aim to set up a political transition process to end the country's five-year-old war. A UN-brokered international roadmap foresees a transitional authority by the middle of this year and elections by mid-2017.
"Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process," the Saudi minister, whose country backs the Syrian opposition, told reporters in Paris. Referring to the sequence of events, he said: "There is a transitional body, power shifts from Assad to the transitional body, and then he goes."
After that "the transitional body drafts a constitution, prepares for elections. Some are arguing that no, Bashar leaves at the elections in 18 months, that's not how we think."
"For us it is very clear, he leaves at the beginning of the process, not at the end."
Syria peace talks set for March 9 will begin the following day with participants due to arrive in Geneva over several days, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said earlier Saturday.
A first round of talks in early February was cut short amid intensifying Russian air strikes in Syria in support of Assad's forces.
But a fragile ceasefire drawn up by Russia and the United States and backed by the UN Security Council that entered into force on February 27 is now in its second week, despite accusations of violations.
The Saudi minister said there was no possibility that Assad could remain in power.
"The Syrian people have spoken when they took up arms against Bashar al-Assad and their message is very very clear: he is not going to be their president…they have already decided with their feet, with their guns," he said.
Discussing Syrian opposition reluctance to travel to Geneva to resume peace talks, he admitted that "they can't go into talks empty-handed."
Syria's main opposition leader Riad Hijab said Friday that conditions were not yet right for talks to resume, stressing shortfalls in humanitarian aid and breaches of the ceasefire implemented a week ago.
"Our position is to support them 200%," said al-Jubeir. "We don't question. We may advise, express our views to them, but we support them," he added.
AFP contributed to this report.