BEIRUT/AMMAN: International diplomats and Syria’s warring sides staggered toward the starting-line of ambitious peace talks in Switzerland aimed at putting an end to a devastating civil war and one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.
The talks, dubbed “Geneva II,” have been overshadowed by diplomatic squabbling over a controversial invite to Iran, deep divisions among the opposition, new accusations of war crimes against the regime and even a flight delay, which all threatened to derail the potentially historic talks before they even begin.
Yet after three years of war that has produced what the U.N. has described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Syrian regime delegates and their opponents will finally gather in the same room Wednesday in the Swiss lake-side city of Montreux.
Despite pleas by U.N. officials and diplomats for rivals to set aside their differences to avert a scenario that could see Syria become a failed state, few believe the meeting, which is expected to be followed by seven to 10 days of talks in the Swiss city of Geneva, will reach a breakthrough.
The war in Syria has cost the country dearly. The death toll in Syria is now estimated at well over 130,000, displacing one-third of the country’s 22 million people and crippling the economy. Yet while victory seems unlikely for either side, none of the fighting parties shows any sign of giving up, and peace remains elusive.
Nonetheless, senior U.N. officials and international diplomatic sources have described the meeting as a “starting point” and said further talks are already scheduled for February as part of what is expected to be months of negotiations to try to hammer out a deal.
“We don’t know who is going to be sitting at the table, but the fact that there is a table is a start,” one senior U.N. official said.
Just 48 hours ahead of the event, a row over Iran’s attendance threw the event into chaos. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon gave a last-minute invitation to Syria’s staunchest ally, only to withdraw it following a stern rebuke from the U.S. and threats of a boycott by the mainstream opposition National Coalition, which after months of pressure from their Western backers, had only agreed to attend a day earlier.
The West and the opposition reject Tehran’s participation because it refuses to endorse the principles of the previous peace plan, Geneva I, which calls for Assad to make way for a transitional administration.
The U.N. strongly defended Iran’s exclusion, saying the country failed to come up with a promised written statement on the conflict, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
“There was an oral understanding that the secretary-general had been led to believe would be followed by an actual written understanding,” Haq told reporters.“In fact the opposite is what happened, that Iran stated the same positions it had held previously. And that is why he expressed his disappointment at Iran’s decision and took his decision to disinvite them,” the spokesman added.
Zarif blasted the decision and urged Ban to “provide the real reasons for the withdrawal.”
“This behavior is beneath the dignity of the U.N.’s secretary-general,” the minister was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Iran’s exclusion a “mistake.”
The talks also threaten to strip the coalition’s credibility because it lacks sway over the powerful, mainly Islamist rebel factions, which control large swathes of territory in northern Syria and have rejected the Geneva talks.
Speaking on arrival in Montreux, Badr Jamous, the coalition’s secretary-general, told Reuters:
“We will not accept less than the removal of the criminal Bashar Assad and changing the regime and holding the murderers accountable.”
More than 40 coalition members quit the body last month over attendance and opposition sources said its president, Ahmad Jarba, would also not attend, given his divisive role.
Equally dogged, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Assad’s role was a “red line” in the talks, shortly before his arrival in Montreux.
“Nobody can touch the presidency,” he added.
The delegation from Damascus, led by Moallem, was delayed by some five hours in Athens due to a disagreement over whether EU trade sanctions permitted the refueling of their plane.
The main ethnic Kurdish faction, which controls much territory in the mainly northeast of Syria, has not been invited.
The regime-tolerated “internal” opposition, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change said Monday it had turned down an invitation from the coalition to attend as one delegation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama had a “businesslike and constructive” telephone conversation about Syria by telephone on the eve of talks, the Kremlin said.
Adding pressure on the regime ahead of talks, a vast cache of smuggled images from a Syrian military police photographer were released Monday, in what war crimes lawyers with the International Criminal Court said showed clear evidence of widespread and systematic killing and torture by the Syrian government.
Observers close to the talks and Western diplomats have expressed hope that at the very least, an agreement for a cease-fire may be made in principle and that access for humanitarian aid to the 9 million people the U.N. estimates are in need may provide an opening for further negotiations.
On the eve of the talks, dozens of Syrian experts working on a U.N. sponsored post-crisis model for Syria meeting in Amman warned that unless the violence stopped immediately, Syria would become a failed state.
The experts, working under the framework of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, released new figures and urged Syrians and participants in the talks to “seize this historic opportunity to stop the crisis in Syria and allow the recovery process of their country to begin for the benefit of all Syrians.”
“ Syria has lost 37 years in development over three years and has witnessed a decline across all development indicators to reach the second-lowest ranking among all Arab countries. With each year the crisis continues, the country is now set back eight years in development,” the group of experts said in a statement.
“The most recent ESCWA figures show that 300 people flee their homes every hour; 6,000 people now die every month; 9,000 people fall below the poverty line each day; while 2,500 succumb to abject poverty. With 38 percent of students falling outside the educational system, Syria risks losing a whole generation of human potential. Unemployment has reached 42 percent – an unprecedented world figure with the exception of Somalia – with 10,000 people losing their jobs every week.”
“Syrian and international stakeholders must harness their responsibilities at this crossroads to end the most disastrous humanitarian conflict currently facing mankind and must put Syria on the path to recovery.”