Peace talks venue for sideline confrontations

BEIRUT: While the Syrian regime and its opponents exchanged accusations and vitriol from the podiums at the opening of peace talks in Switzerland, on the sidelines outside the conference, their respective supporters and media delegations engaged in fierce and sometimes physical confrontations.

The talks, opening Wednesday in the picturesque lakeside city of Montreux and continuing in Geneva, present a rare and sometimes surreal opportunity for opponents in Syria’s bitter civil war to engage in dialogue.

Opposition activists, for years forced underground for fear of the regime’s ruthless security services, have come face to face with regime representatives in the Swiss city.

Rival media outlets, which have served to disseminate sharply divergent narratives to their viewers and followers, have also had the rare opportunity to broadcast from the same location.

The results – angry and violent exchanges – have been captured on camera and shared on the Internet, providing an insight into the depths of the conflict that extends beyond the official delegates’ intransigence.

In one widely circulated video, opposition activist and director of the ANA news agency, Rami Jarrah, confronts the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, as he makes his way to the talks.

Zoubi, swarmed by journalists, persistently dodges questions from Jarrah about the regime’s use of crude “barrel bombs” in Aleppo and the relationship between the regime and Al-Qaeda. The regime has persistently framed the conflict and the priority for peace talks as a fight against what it terms Al-Qaeda terrorists.

“Mr. Minister, what about the barrel bombs in Aleppo? Who is using barrel bombs in Aleppo? Who? ISIS?” Jarrah asks in the clip, posted on YouTube, referring to an Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

“Are you fighting against ISIS?” Give me an answer.

“Why don’t you shell the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa? I can give you its geographic coordinates so that you can go and shell it. Why don’t you shell ISIS? Why do you shell the people?”

Later, Jarrah was reportedly assaulted outside the talks by regime supporters, who he described as “thugs.”

In another clip, the ANA reporter is shown interviewing a female regime supporter in a pro-Bashar Assad gathering.

“The terrorists are using the [Syrian] people as human shields. We demand our president and army shell every area that has terrorists and the people of those areas should ask the president to shell even at the cost of their own life. You have destroyed Iraq, you have destroyed Libya, you will not get Syria,” the woman shouts.

The reporter is then jostled and thrown to the ground.

Other reports of pro- and anti-regime supporters demonstrating outside the talks and coming to blows are also coming out.

In another video, widely circulated Wednesday, opposition Oritn TV reporter Haifa Bouzo is shown in a vicious shouting match against members of the regime media delegation while a crowd looks on.

A man on the regime’s side challenges the reporter’s identity.

“If you are Syrian, you should fight for Syria,” the man says.

Rami Jarrah from ANA news agency confronts Information Minister Omran Zoubi regarding ISIS

Pro-Assad supporter yells at opposition journalist, before the journalist is assaulted

Pro and anti-Assad demonstrators in Montreux swear and beat each other with sticks

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2014, on page 5.




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