President Bashar Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition are scheduled to sit at peace talks for the first time Wednesday in Switzerland after nearly three years of civil war.
Assad has the advantage of iron control over his delegation, which is led by officials with long diplomatic experience. The political opposition in exile is struggling to overcome internal divisions and is weakened by rebel statements rejecting its authority. Below is a description of key players:
GOVERNMENT WALID AL-MOALLEM Assad’s foreign minister and head of the government delegation. As ambassador to Washington in the 1990s, when Syria and Israel embarked on failed peace negotiations, Moallem has more than a decade of direct experience in high-stakes talks.
The 73-year-old career diplomat was appointed foreign minister in 2006 to signal a more flexible foreign policy by Assad. Moallem can talk tough. He has denied findings of a U.N. investigation that said he threatened former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two weeks before the latter was assassinated by a massive car bombing in Beirut in 2005.
In public appearances since the revolt against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011, Moallem has towed the official line, blaming the demonstrations on a foreign conspiracy and dismissing the possibility of Assad giving up power.
Moallem is from a Sunni family in Damascus, where an alliance between the city’s wealthy Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite minority has been a pillar of the four-decade Assad family’s rule.
FAISAL MEKDAD Officially deputy foreign minister, Mekdad is one of the most powerful figures in the Cabinet by virtue of his connections with the intelligence apparatus and the ruling Baath Party. A protégé of Farouq al-Sharaa, Syria’s ceremonial Sunni vice president who has been sidelined since the revolt started, Mekdad is calm and deliberate in projecting support for Assad, while being fiercely critical of the uprising and the subsequent rise of Islamist rebels. He is from the southern province of Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN An adviser to Assad and a rare non-security figure with direct access to the president. An Alawite who was a translator to the president’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad, Shaaban’s career has been shaped by the elder Assad and his historic decision before his death in 2000 to turn down a peace deal with Israel that would have returned most of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Shaaban, who has acted on occasion as a de facto spokesman for Bashar, has a doctorate in English literature from Britain. Although she espoused reform early in the revolt, she has appeared more hard-line as the anti-Assad camp took up arms. She has denied that children were killed in a nerve gas attack on rebel neighborhoods of Damascus in August last year.
KEY OPPOSITION FIGURES AHMAD JARBA President of the Western-backed umbrella opposition group in exile, the National Coalition. Jarba was elected six months ago following a bitter power struggle that saw the ascendancy of an opposition bloc backed by Riyadh but less influenced by Islamists.
Jarba’s leadership was called in question when he slapped a coalition member at a meeting two months ago, but he has since defeated a challenge to his leadership by a Qatari-backed wing and established a rapport with Kurdish parties who were brought into the coalition.
Born in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh, which is inhabited by Arabs and Kurds, 44-year-old Jarba belongs to the Shammar, a large Ahrab tribe that extends into Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He was a political prisoner for two years in the 1990s. He was also arrested during the uprising and fled to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state that is leading support for the Syrian opposition.
HAITHAM MALEH Maleh, a native of Damascus, is a lawyer and human rights activist who has been detained numerous times as political prisoner since the 1960s. With the outbreak of the current conflict, Maleh has been closely involved with the opposition. He initially joined the Executive Committee of the Syrian National Council, but soon resigned and founded the Syrian Patriotic Group in February 2012.
The following March he left the SNC completely in order to form a new opposition body based out of Cairo, the Committee of Trustees of the Revolution.
The aim, he said, was to provide an alternative to the SNC and renew dialogue within the opposition.
SUHAIR ATASSI One of the few women in the coalition, Atassi is the scion of a political family from the city of Homs with a long history of opposition to Assad family rule. A holder of a French Literature degree from Damascus University, Atassi helped organize bold demonstrations in central Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners that helped spark the revolt. She was jailed for a month and soon after her release she criticized Assad’s proposed reforms as insufficient, saying he could not remain “behaving as if he is the master of Syria.”