U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday accused Syria of “clearly trying to disrupt" the U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the bloody five-year civil war in the country by demanding that there be no discussion of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The top U.S. diplomat said that violence in the war-wracked country has been "hugely reduced" -- by 80 to 90 percent -- since a “cessation of hostilities” was declared two weeks ago. But he said the "single biggest violator" of the truce has been the Assad regime, and he described Assad as a "spoiler."
“Aerial bombardments ... must stop,” Kerry said. “Look hard at who is committing these violations.”
He said “incremental violations threaten to undermine” efforts to permanently end the fighting and any effort to eventually hold elections in Syria.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria, March 12, 2016.
Kerry spoke after meeting with his British, French, German and Italian counterparts Sunday in Paris about the Syrian crisis, a day before the U.N. talks are set to begin in Geneva.
Ahead of Monday's discussions, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned negotiators that any talk about the fate of Syria's president is off the table. "We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency . . . Bashar al-Assad is a red line," Muallem said.
Assad has to go
Mohammad Alloush, the chief negotiator for Syria's main opposition group, said the president has to go, a demand the U.S. also has long made.
Alloush told the French news agency AFP, "We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall or death of Bashar al-Assad."
Kerry has urged both sides in Syria to proceed with the peace talks despite their conflict over the presidency.
Muallem said the Syrian government remains committed to the cease-fire agreement, but its delegation to the peace talks will only wait 24 hours for the opposition delegation to arrive for the talks. Muallem said Saturday in Damascus the diplomats will leave for Geneva Sunday.
FILE - Civil defense workers remove dead bodies from under debris after an airstrike on Kafr Hamra village in the northern Aleppo countryside of Syria, Feb. 27, 2016.
A Syrian opposition official said the foreign minister is "halting Geneva talks before they start."
U.N. peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has said the Geneva meetings, which are scheduled to open on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict in March 2011, would not last more than 10 days.
U.N. officials said the cessation of hostilities agreement has made it possible for U.N. and partner agencies to deliver food, medicine and other aid to 115,000 Syrian civilians living in areas under siege by government or opposition forces. They said last year, aid agencies were unable to access any of these areas.
But Kerry said he continues to be “deeply concerned” about the Syrian government’s efforts to deter the delivery of medical and surgical supplies.
He accused the Syrian government of siphoning off vital medical aid to war-hit communities.
Syria's five-year conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
Lisa Bryant in Paris contributed to this report.