GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Even as Syrian peace efforts resumed Wednesday in Geneva, President Bashar al-Assad took a major jab at the process from Damascus: voting in parliamentary elections denounced as a farce by the opposition.
Syria’s state-run media published photographs of the embattled leader and his wife, Asma al-Assad, smiling as they cast ballots in the capital for a new 250-member parliament.
The decision to hold the elections during peace talks in Geneva backed by the United Nations was another signal that the Syrian leader has no plans to step aside — a key demand of the opposition delegation at the negotiations.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad underscored Assad’s stance in an interview with the Associated Press, saying the opposition — including factions backed by the West and its allies — must abandon the “dream” of a transitional government.
Such a plan “will never be acceptable,” Mekdad said.
Voting took place only in government-held areas of the country. Regime opponents boycotted the elections, which almost certainly will produce a rubber-stamp legislature for Assad.
“The Assad regime will do whatever it can to undermine and derail the political process,” said Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella group that represents the opposition in Geneva.
Despite the elections, which Meslet called a “farce,” the group pledged to participate in the talks.
“Free elections must be held in Syria after the political transition,” he said.
The vote may also be viewed as a snub to Russia, an important ally of Assad that has intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict and given a crucial boost to government forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that a political transition, which includes drafting a new constitution and holding another round of elections, remains key to ending the conflict.
But Lavrov also offered praise, albeit guarded, for Wednesday’s elections. “These elections held today are designed to play this role of not allowing a legal vacuum” during the ongoing political process, he said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Russian air power — combined with thousands of Shiite militiamen from countries such as Iran and Lebanon — has helped Assad’s forces make key gains against rebel fighters in recent months. The Syrian leader now looks less vulnerable.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin expected greater flexibility in the Geneva negotiations from Assad, though, it would appear unlikely.
In recent weeks, the Syrian leader has firmly dismissed key parameters of a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December — and backed by Russia — that calls for a transitional government and elections within 18 months.
Despite statements by both Assad and the opposition that indicated little room for negotiation over a political transition, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said Wednesday that all parties have agreed to discuss it. During visits over the past week to Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, he said, he was “very clear” about the agenda, which includes “full implementation” of the resolution.
“The word ‘governance’ is crucial,” de Mistura said, “and no one had any objection to that point.” He said it was “normal that each delegation normally states its own strong position.” But, he added, “when we come here, we come here to negotiate.” Although the resolution calls for the transitional body to assume all government functions, it does not mention whether Assad can be part of it.
De Mistura said he also would hold a meeting on Thursday of a task force led by the United States and Russia that was set up to monitor the fraying cease-fire, which began in February. He cited “serious incidents” that, if they “are too often repeated, could at least deteriorate the spirit and confidence” in what is officially known as a “cessation of hostilities.”
Pro-government forces appear to be intensifying attacks in the northwestern Latakia province, along the border with Turkey, where they have seized villages from rebel forces.
South of the city of Aleppo, battles raged Tuesday between Shiite militiamen from Lebanon and Iran and militants from al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. More than a dozen pro-government militiamen were killed in that assault, which occurred near the Tel Eis area, according to statements published on Twitter by opposition figures.
Video images, which could not be independently verified, purportedly showed bodies of Shiite militiamen scattered in the Tel Eis area and a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter beheading at least one Shiite militiaman.
It is unclear whether Russian airstrikes have come to the aid of pro-government fighters near Tel Eis.
Although Putin announced last month that he would draw down his military forces in Syria, Russian aircraft and soldiers still appear to be participating intensively in battles against the Islamic State militant group, which controls significant territory in Syria.
Last month, pro-government forces captured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State, which is not a party to the cease-fire.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.