Syrian rivals may discuss prisoner swaps despite talks acrimony

Syrian rivals may discuss prisoner swaps despite talks acrimony

MONTREUX - Reuters
Syrian rivals may discuss prisoner swaps despite talks acrimony

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (L) and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon attend a press conference closing the so-called Geneva II peace talks dedicated to the ongoing conflict in Syria, on Jan. 22. AFP photo

Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility on Jan. 22 but the U.N. mediator said the enemies may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid. 

Russia said the rival sides had promised to start direct talks on Jan. 24 despite fears that a standoff over President Bashar al-Assad's fate would halt the push for a political solution to Syria's civil war, which has killed over 130,000 and made millions homeless. 

Even if the sides are willing to discuss limited confidence-building measures, expectations for the peace process remain low, with Islamist rebels and al-Assad ally Iran absent and a solution to the three-year war still far off. 

Western officials were taken aback by the combative tone of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem at the one-day a U.N. peace conference in Switzerland, fearing follow-up negotiations would never get off the ground due to the acrimony. 

But after a day of bitter speeches in the lakeside city of Montreux, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi signalled that both sides were ready to move beyond rhetoric. "We have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, the liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," he told a news conference. 

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had urged Damascus to release detainees as a confidence-building measure and appealed to both sides. "Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate," he told reporters. 

Russia, which co-sponsored the Montreux meeting with the United States, said the rival Syrian delegations had promised to sit down on Jan. 24 for talks which were expected to last about seven days. 

Statements 'emotional'

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the recriminations on Jan. 22, when the opposition called for Assad to hand over power - a demand dismissed by al-Muallem, who in turn graphically described atrocities by "terrorist" rebels. 

"As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional statements, they blamed one another," Lavrov told reporters. However, he added: "For the first time in three years of the bloody conflict ... the sides - for all their accusations - agreed to sit down at the negotiating table." 

Lavrov, who met both al-Muallem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba on Jan. 22, urged Assad's opponents and their foreign backers not to focus exclusively on leadership change. 

Wednesday's meeting exposed sharp differences on forcing out al-Assad, both between the government and opposition, and among the foreign powers which fear that the conflict is spilling beyond Syria and encouraging sectarian militancy abroad. 

Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation sign up to an international plan for handing over power. Al-Mualem insisted al-Assad would not bow to outside demands, denouncing atrocities committed by rebels supported by the Arab and Western states whose delegations were sitting in the conference room. 
Syrian FM warns Turkish PM Erdoğan

Al-Muallem also dubbed the country's opposition "traitors" and foreign "agents" in a strongly-worded speech. He called on foreign powers to stop "supporting terrorism" and to lift sanctions against Damascus, singling out Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for backing the opposition.
"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.

Referring to rebel acts, 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 revolution." 

He insisted al-Assad's future was not in question, saying: "Nobody in this world has a right to withdraw legitimacy from a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves." 

Iran may play a role: US

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 Lavrov said all sides had a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012 pact. 

Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shiiite 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. 

Kerry acknowledged Tehran could play a role in a solution. "Iran certainly does have an ability to be helpful and make a difference," he told reporters. "There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks or months, and my hope is they will want to join in a constructive solution."
For is part,  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that there was still hope, although fragile. 

"Hope exists but it's fragile. We must continue because the solution to this terrible Syrian conflict is political and needs us to continue discussions," said Fabius. "Obviously when we hear Bashar al-Assad's representative, whose tone is radically different, we know it will be difficult."