Syrian peace talks kick off with little sign of compromise
MONTREUX, Switzerland // Syria’s government and opposition angrily spelt out their hostility as they met for the first time on Wednesday at a peace conference to end the three-year conflict.
The two sides offered sharply divergent views on President Bashar Al Assad staying in power as the United Nations conference, attended by more than 30 countries, got underway in Switzerland.
Foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed led the UAE delegation.
Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Mr Al Assad of war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the meeting immediately sign up to an international plan for handing over power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallem insisted Mr Al Assad would not bow to outside demands and painted a graphic picture of “terrorist” rebel atrocities.
The regime has attempted to focus the Geneva 2 peace talks on ending terrorism. On Tuesday, The National revealed that the regime released Al Qaeda-linked prisoners from a jail near Damascus in 2011, in hopes of inciting violence to justify its brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.
The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the two-day conference in Montreux, also made clear their differences over Mr Al Assad. UN officials hope the talks will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday.
The meeting reflects mounting global concern that a war which has killed more than 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.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, echoed the rebel view that there is “no way” Mr Al Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord calling for an interim coalition. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said all sides must have a role and criticised “one-sided interpretations” of that 2012 pact.
Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shiiite Lebanese ally Hizbollah 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.
The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even agreeing to be in the same room as Mr Al Assad’s delegates.
Opposition leader Mr Jarba called for the government delegation to turn against their president before 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,” he said.
“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, Mr Jarba said it was Mr Al Assad’s forces which, by targeting mainstream opposition groups, had created the conditions for Al Qaeda to thrive.
Mr Al Muallem exchanged sharp words with Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, as he spoke well beyond a 10-minute time limit. The Syrian foreign minister called on foreign powers to stop “supporting terrorism” and to lift sanctions against Damascus. And he insisted that Mr Al Assad’s future was not up for discussion.
“We came here as representatives of the Syrian people and state and everybody should know that nobody in this world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy of a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves,” he said.
Mr 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,” Mr Ban said, condemning a record of human rights abuses across the board.
He urged both sides in Syria to reach a full settlement based on the outcome of a 2012 UN Geneva peace conference, under which world powers called for a transitional government.
Many of the more than 40 government representatives echoed concerns about the human cost of the war and the dangers of escalation posed by heavily armed international militants.
But there was little sign of compromise on the central issue of whether Mr Al Assad, who inherited power from his father 14 years ago, should make way for a government of national unity.
Also on Wednesday, Syria’s justice ministry dismissed a report alleging mass torture and killing by the country’s regime as “politicised” calling the shocking photos in the document “fake”.
The comments came in response to the publication of a report alleging the “industrial-scale” torture and murder of 11,000 detainees by Mr Al Assad’s regime.
The report put together by a British law firm and commissioned by Qatar — which backs the Syrian rebels — says there is “clear evidence” of the starvation, strangulation and beating of detainees in Syrian prison.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: January 22, 2014 04:00 AM