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 first
time, angrily spelled out their mutual hostility on Wednesday at a U.N. peace
conference where world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcing
out Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused the president of Nazi-style war crimes
and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in
Montreux, Switzerland sign up to an international plan for handing over power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem insisted Assad would not bow to
outside demands and painted a graphic picture of "terrorist" rebel
atrocities supported by Arab and Western states who back the opposition and
were 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" and
foreign "agents" in a strongly-worded speech.
"They claim to represent the Syrian people. If you want to speak in the
name 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 the
"All of this would not have happened if it had not been for Erdoğan - they
did not know that magic would turn against the magician one day - terrorism has
no 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 revealed
their differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations at Montreux
on Lake Geneva.
The talks reflect mounting global concern that a war which has killed over
130,000 and left millions homeless is spilling beyond Syria and fuelling
sectarian militancy abroad. But there was little sign that any party was ready
to make concessions.
Western officials said they were taken aback by the combative tone adopted by
Moualem, who also defied U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plea to shorten
his speech. Some diplomats questioned whether negotiations could continue.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no
way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urging
an interim coalition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides
had a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012
Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'ite
Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran, locked in a
sectarian confrontation across the region, was absent, shunned by the
opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. Its
president said Tehran's exclusion meant talks were unlikely to succeed.
The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist
rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even
But even Western officials said hopes of talks in Geneva after Friday may be in
jeopardy. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he found
Moualem's unbending position "astounding and infuriating" and added
that there could be no progress with Damascus "if they don't show some
A French official called al-Moallem 's speech "provocative and
aggressive". 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 for
humanitarian 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 human
rights abuses across the board. "Great challenges lie ahead but they are
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 a
government of national unity.
He himself says he could win re-election later this year and his fate has
divided Moscow and Washington. Both endorse the conclusions of the 2012 meeting
of world powers, known as Geneva 1, but differ on whether it means Assad must
Opposition leader Jarba called for the government delegates to turn against
their president before so-called Geneva 2 negotiations start: "We want to
make sure we have a partner in this room that goes from being a Bashar al-Assad
delegation to a free delegation so that all executive powers are transferred
from 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 al
Qaeda and other militants, Jarba said it was Assad's forces which, by targeting
mainstream opposition groups, had created the conditions for al Qaeda to
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 pregnant
women 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 the
He insisted Assad's future was not up for discussion, saying: "Nobody in
this world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy of a president or
government ... 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 Assad
is the problem and Assad must go in order to start the transition towards
Lavrov repeated Moscow's opposition to "outside players" interfering
in Syria's sovereign affairs and prejudging the outcome of talks on forming an
interim government. He also said Iran - Assad's main foreign backer - should
have a say.
The Kremlin is wary of what it sees as a Western appetite for toppling foreign
autocrats that was whetted in Libya in 2011. Moscow opposes making Assad's
departure a condition for peace. Speaking of the Geneva Communique, Lavrov
said: "The essence of this document is that mutual agreement between the
government and opposition should decide the future of Syria."
Kerry also spoke of "mutual" agreement among Syrians, but in a sense
that excluded Assad.
"We see only one option - negotiating a transition government born by
mutual consent," he said. "That means that Bashar al-Assad will not
be part of that transition government. There is no way ... that a man who has
led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern."
A last-minute invitation from Ban to Iran was revoked after the Syrian
opposition threatened to boycott the talks - a move that threatened to
undermine months of U.S. and Western efforts to cajole Jarba's National
Coalition into taking part.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran's exclusion made it unlikely the
conference could succeed: "Because of the lack of influential players in
the 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 and
air strikes around the country. Around Damascus, government artillery hit
villages and rebels clashed with the army in the neighbourhood of Jobar on the
northeast fringe of the capital, it said. Activists also reported clashes in
Hama, Aleppo and the southern province of Deraa.
The release of photographs apparently showing prisoners tortured and killed by
the government was cited by Jarba and Western ministers. The Syrian government
rejected the report as not objective and aimed at undermining negotiations.
Discontent stretches back to the rule since 1970 of Assad's father, who took
power in a military coup, but it boiled over in March 2011 as Syria's
drought-hit economy struggled and the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and
Egypt inspired protests.
When those were crushed, the revolt became a war that has taken on an
increasingly sectarian complexion, setting majority Sunnis against Assad's
Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. It has also drawn in rival
powers with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the rebels and Iran standing by
Al Qaeda-linked militants and other Islamists have emerged as the most powerful
forces on the rebel side, dampening Western appetite for direct intervention
and sparking conflict among rival rebel formations. Iran and Hezbollah have
helped Assad. And violence has spread, notably to Iraq and Lebanon.
In Damascus, where life limps on amid bombardments and checkpoints, weary
residents voice cautious hopes for better.
"I can't say there's optimism anywhere pertaining to the Geneva talks, but
it's a start," said Ruba, a mother of two. "I really don't think much
will come out of it, but the alternative is no talks at all, and that's not
An opposition activist who uses the name Susan Ahmed said: "People are
hopeful Geneva might be an omen for them to return to their homes. They're
exhausted and they want it all to end."