MONTREUX, Switzerland - Agence France-Presse
U.N.-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov join hands after their meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, January 21, 2014. REUTERS Photo
Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the firsttime, angrily spelled out their mutual hostility on Wednesday at a U.N. peaceconference where world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcingout Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused the president of Nazi-style war crimesand demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting inMontreux, Switzerland sign up to an international plan for handing over power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem insisted Assad would not bow tooutside demands and painted a graphic picture of "terrorist" rebelatrocities supported by Arab and Western states who back the opposition andwere present in the room.
"Assad isn't going," Syria's information minister said.
Syrian FM warns Turkish PM Erdoğan
Meanwhile, al-Moallem dubbed the country's opposition "traitors" andforeign "agents" in a strongly-worded speech.
"They claim to represent the Syrian people. If you want to speak in thename of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people,agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people," al-Moallem said.
He also singled out Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for backing theopposition.
"All of this would not have happened if it had not been for Erdoğan - theydid not know that magic would turn against the magician one day - terrorism hasno religion," he said.
The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the conference which U.N.officials hope will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday, also revealedtheir differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations at Montreuxon Lake Geneva.
The talks reflect mounting global concern that a war which has killed over130,000 and left millions homeless is spilling beyond Syria and fuellingsectarian militancy abroad. But there was little sign that any party was readyto make concessions.
Western officials said they were taken aback by the combative tone adopted byMoualem, who also defied U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plea to shortenhis speech. Some diplomats questioned whether negotiations could continue.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "noway" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urgingan interim coalition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sideshad a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012pact.
Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'iteLebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran, locked in asectarian confrontation across the region, was absent, shunned by theopposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. Itspresident said Tehran's exclusion meant talks were unlikely to succeed.
The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamistrebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for eventaking part.
But even Western officials said hopes of talks in Geneva after Friday may be injeopardy. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he foundMoualem's unbending position "astounding and infuriating" and addedthat there could be no progress with Damascus "if they don't show someintelligence".
A French official called al-Moallem 's speech "provocative andaggressive". A Western diplomat called it a "major error"showing "paranoid arrogance" that could undermine negotiations.
U.N. chief Ban opened proceedings by calling for immediate access forhumanitarian aid convoys to areas under siege.
"After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria,today is a day of fragile but real hope," Ban said, condemning humanrights abuses across the board. "Great challenges lie ahead but they arenot insurmountable."
But there was little sign of compromise on the central issue of whether Assad,who inherited power from his father 14 years ago, should make way for agovernment of national unity.
He himself says he could win re-election later this year and his fate hasdivided Moscow and Washington. Both endorse the conclusions of the 2012 meetingof world powers, known as Geneva 1, but differ on whether it means Assad mustgo now.
Opposition leader Jarba called for the government delegates to turn againsttheir president before so-called Geneva 2 negotiations start: "We want tomake sure we have a partner in this room that goes from being a Bashar al-Assaddelegation to a free delegation so that all executive powers are transferredfrom Bashar al-Assad," the National Coalition leader added.
"My question is clear. Do we have such a partner?"
Turning around the government's accusations that the rebels have fostered alQaeda and other militants, Jarba said it was Assad's forces which, by targetingmainstream opposition groups, had created the conditions for al Qaeda tothrive.
Al-Moallem called on foreign powers to stop "supporting terrorism"and to lift sanctions against Damascus.
Referring to rebel atrocities, he said: "In Syria, the wombs of pregnantwomen are cut open, the foetuses are killed. Women are raped, dead or alive ...Men are slaughtered in front of their children in the name of therevolution."
He insisted Assad's future was not up for discussion, saying: "Nobody inthis world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy of a president orgovernment ... other than the Syrians themselves."
Opposition spokesman Monzer Akbik said Assad lay at the heart of the conflict:"Assad is the problem," he said. "We say 'democracy', they say'Assad' ... We're talking about a nation, they're talking about a man. So Assadis the problem and Assad must go in order to start the transition towardsdemocracy."
Lavrov repeated Moscow's opposition to "outside players" interferingin Syria's sovereign affairs and prejudging the outcome of talks on forming aninterim government. He also said Iran - Assad's main foreign backer - shouldhave a say.
The Kremlin is wary of what it sees as a Western appetite for toppling foreignautocrats that was whetted in Libya in 2011. Moscow opposes making Assad'sdeparture a condition for peace. Speaking of the Geneva Communique, Lavrovsaid: "The essence of this document is that mutual agreement between thegovernment and opposition should decide the future of Syria."
Kerry also spoke of "mutual" agreement among Syrians, but in a sensethat excluded Assad.
"We see only one option - negotiating a transition government born bymutual consent," he said. "That means that Bashar al-Assad will notbe part of that transition government. There is no way ... that a man who hasled a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern."
A last-minute invitation from Ban to Iran was revoked after the Syrianopposition threatened to boycott the talks - a move that threatened toundermine months of U.S. and Western efforts to cajole Jarba's NationalCoalition into taking part.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran's exclusion made it unlikely theconference could succeed: "Because of the lack of influential players inthe meeting, I doubt the Geneva 2 meeting's success," he said.
War rages in Syria
During the speeches in Montreux, the war went on in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported clashes andair strikes around the country. Around Damascus, government artillery hitvillages and rebels clashed with the army in the neighbourhood of Jobar on thenortheast fringe of the capital, it said. Activists also reported clashes inHama, Aleppo and the southern province of Deraa.
The release of photographs apparently showing prisoners tortured and killed bythe government was cited by Jarba and Western ministers. The Syrian governmentrejected the report as not objective and aimed at undermining negotiations.
Discontent stretches back to the rule since 1970 of Assad's father, who tookpower in a military coup, but it boiled over in March 2011 as Syria'sdrought-hit economy struggled and the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia andEgypt inspired protests.
When those were crushed, the revolt became a war that has taken on anincreasingly sectarian complexion, setting majority Sunnis against Assad'sAlawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. It has also drawn in rivalpowers with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the rebels and Iran standing byAssad.
Al Qaeda-linked militants and other Islamists have emerged as the most powerfulforces on the rebel side, dampening Western appetite for direct interventionand sparking conflict among rival rebel formations. Iran and Hezbollah havehelped Assad. And violence has spread, notably to Iraq and Lebanon.
In Damascus, where life limps on amid bombardments and checkpoints, wearyresidents voice cautious hopes for better.
"I can't say there's optimism anywhere pertaining to the Geneva talks, butit's a start," said Ruba, a mother of two. "I really don't think muchwill come out of it, but the alternative is no talks at all, and that's notmuch better."
An opposition activist who uses the name Susan Ahmed said: "People arehopeful Geneva might be an omen for them to return to their homes. They'reexhausted and they want it all to end."