Men react near a site hit by what activists say are barrel
bombs dropped by government forces on al-Katerji district
in Aleppo, Syria. REUTERS/Hosam Katan
Syrian and international delegates have arrived in
Switzerland for peace talks that few believe can succeed as the
three-year-old civil war and geopolitical acrimony it has
brought show no sign of abating.
Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, pressured to attend
Wednesday's (local time) first direct negotiations by their
Western backers, cited new, photographic evidence of
widespread torture and killing by Syria's government in
renewing their demand that Assad must quit and face an
international war crimes trial.
War crimes lawyers said a vast, smuggled cache of images from
a Syrian military police photographer gave clear evidence of
systematic abuse and murder of about 11,000 detainees. One of
three former international war crimes prosecutors who signed
the report compared the images from Syria with the
"industrial-scale killing" of Nazi death camps.
The delegation from Damascus, led by Assad's foreign
minister, was briefly held up at Athens due to an argument
over whether EU trade sanctions permitted refuelling of the
plane. Assad has insisted he may be re-elected later this
year and says the talks should focus on fighting "terrorism"
- his term for his enemies.
The United Nations, along with co-sponsors Russia and the
United States, may at least be relieved if and when the two
sides sit down at the Montreux Palace hotel on Lake Geneva. A
day of diplomatic chaos on Monday had threatened to scupper
the event, after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave a
last-minute invitation to Iran, Assad's main foreign
The invitation was withdrawn after a boycott threat from the
opposition, Western pressure and Iran's insistence it had
never agreed to the condition Ban set for attendance - that
it endorse a previous peace conference, at Geneva in 2012,
which called for Assad to make way for a transitional
Narrowing the gap between the warring parties seems a tall
order and diplomats at the United Nations stress the meeting
at Montreux on Wednesday, to be followed possibly by further
talks in Geneva from Friday, is only a beginning. It could
produce some deals to ease civilian suffering and exchange
Not only are both sides still committed to a fight on the
frontlines, where victory continues to elude either party,
but most of the myriad rebel groups have disowned the
National Coalition opposition group for agreeing to talk at
And while the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi,
notionally has the consensus support of world powers, the
uproar over the invitation to Tehran illustrated how the war
has divided Western powers from Russia and set the Sunni Arab
states which back the rebels against Shi'ite Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack
Obama had a "businesslike and constructive" conversation
about Syria by telephone, the Kremlin said. Their foreign
ministers, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, were to meet later
The spread of violence, which has already killed more than
130,000 and driven a third of Syria's 22 million people from
their homes, has, however, given a new, common impetus to
international efforts to end the bloodshed.
In Beirut on Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed four people in
a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese
Shi'ite militia. It has sent fighters to help Assad, a member
of Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
At a camp in Lebanon, a Syrian named Abu Shadi said the
refugees just wanted a deal to let them return to their
"Hopefully they will find us a solution in this conference so
we can go back home," he said. "Find us a solution so that we
can go back home. We're really tired of this."
It has been 18 months since the previous international peace
conference, dubbed Geneva-1, ended in failure, and all other
diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.
"At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the
first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoner
swaps and so on," said one Western diplomat.
"At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de
facto giving legitimisation to Damascus. They are talking to
Assad's government on the other side of the table.
"And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power."
Speaking on his arrival in Switzerland, Badr Jamous,
secretary-general of the opposition National Coalition and
member of its negotiating team, told Reuters: "We will not
accept less than the removal of the criminal Bashar al-Assad
and changing the regime and holding the murderers
The talks could increase the already ferocious internal
strife among rival opposition factions, however. The
conference is being boycotted by the powerful Sunni Islamist
factions that control substantial territory inside Syria.
They have denounced the exiled political opposition as
traitors for attending.
The main ethnic Kurdish faction, which controls a swathe of
the northwest, has not been invited.
The U.N. secretary-general arrived in Geneva, having nearly
torpedoed the talks with his invitation to Iran. Aides
shielded him from reporters' questions about the affair.
Western countries have long insisted Tehran sign up to the
final statement from Geneva-1 before it could attend other
talks. Ban said Iran's foreign minister had told him Tehran
accepted the 2012 statement, which includes a requirement
that Syria set up a transitional government.
But Tehran said it had agreed to no such thing.
A Western diplomat described the day as "a real mess" and
said Ban had made a gaffe that had almost led to the
conference being cancelled and replaced by a bilateral
meeting between Russia and the United States.
EMACIATED AND ABUSED
The bleak consequences of the war were illustrated starkly in
photographs of the emaciated and abused bodies of detainees,
released in a report commissioned by a London law firm hired
by Qatar, an avowed enemy of Assad. Its timing ensured the
issue dominated international headlines before the talks
The report, by three senior lawyers who have worked for
international war crimes tribunals and three forensic
experts, said they believed the pictures and the
photographer's account were credible evidence Assad's
government had systematically tortured and killed as many as
They said they had been shown 55,000 images, most of which
were provided by a source who identified himself as a Syrian
police photographer whose job included documenting deaths in
Assad's jails on behalf of the authorities.
"The bodies ... showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings,
strangulation and other forms of torture and killing," they
wrote. "In some cases the bodies had no eyes."
One of the authors, Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor
of a war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone and one of
Britain's top lawyers, said the evidence documented
"industrial-scale killing" reminiscent of Nazi death camps
and was "clearly" the work of the government.
"Some of the images we saw were absolutely reminiscent of
pictures of people who came out of Belsen and Auschwitz,"
said de Silva, who also noted that Assad's enemies were
accused of some crimes. He added that the 11,000 dead were
from only one area, saying: "It is the tip of the iceberg."