Jordanian activists from the Al-Tahrir party hold party
flags and shout slogans against the Geneva-2 peace
conference held in Switzerland during a demonstration in
front the Syrian embassy in Amman. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first
time, have vented their mutual hostility but a UN mediator said
the warring sides may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local
ceasefires and humanitarian aid.
Russia said the rival sides had promised to start direct
talks despite fears that a standoff over President Bashar
al-Assad's fate at the meeting in Switzerland 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 talk about limited
confidence-building measures, expectations for the peace
process remain low, with an overall solution to the
three-year war still far off.
Western officials were taken aback by the combative tone of
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at the one-day a UN
peace conference in Montreux, fearing follow-up negotiations
would never get off the ground due to the acrimony.
However, 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
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also told
reporters that he had urged the Syrian government to release
detainees as a confidence-building measure.
Russia, which co-sponsored the Montreux meeting with the
United States, said the rival Syrian delegations had promised
to sit down on Friday for talks which were expected to last
about seven days.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the
recriminations on Wednesday, when the opposition called for
Assad to hand over power - a demand dismissed by Moualem, who
in turn graphically described atrocities by "terrorist"
"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," he told reporters.
Lavrov, who said he held talks with Moualem and Syrian
opposition leader Ahmed Jarba on Wednesday, urged the
opposition and its foreign backers not to focus exclusively
on leadership change in Damascus.
Wednesday's meeting at an hotel in the lakeside city exposed
sharply differing views on forcing out 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. Moualem insisted Assad would not bow
to outside demands, denouncing atrocities committed by rebels
supported by the Arab and Western states which were present
in the room.
"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 French Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius. "Obviously when we hear Bashar
al-Assad's representative, whose tone is radically different,
we know it will be difficult."
Moualem called on foreign powers to stop "supporting
terrorism" and to lift sanctions against Damascus.
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 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
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 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
The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly
among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed
opposition leaders as traitors for even taking part.
UN 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 not 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 a government of national
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 go now.
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
"My question is clear. Do we have such a partner?"
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."
Despite the differences, however, some participants believe
common interests in reining in violence could rally the West,
Russia and possibly even Iran behind some form of compromise.
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
President Hassan Rouhani said from Tehran that Iran's
exclusion made it unlikely the conference could succeed.
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
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.
In Damascus, where life limps on amid bombardments and
checkpoints, weary residents cautiously hope for better.
"I really don't think much will come out of it, but the
alternative is no talks at all, and that's not much better,"
said Ruba, a mother of two.