BEIRUT/MONTREUX: The bitterness between Syria’s government and its opponents was visceral in opening statements of peace talks in Switzerland Wednesday, but there were signs the two sides may be ready to commit to confidence-building measures when talks continue Thursday.
Both sides hardened their positions over the nature of the crisis, responsibility for the violence and the fate of President Bashar Assad, reiterating divergent narratives that have made the talks elusive for months.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the U.S. position that Assad, responsible for the brutal repression of peaceful protests, had lost legitimacy and could not be part of any transitional government. His Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem repeated accusations the West has Syrian blood on their hands through sponsorship of terrorism and said no one has the right to remove Assad except Syrians.
“We really need to deal with reality,” Kerry said. “There is no way – no way possible in the imagination – that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern. One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage.”
The Syrian response was firm and blunt. “There will be no transfer of power and President Bashar Assad is staying,” Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoubi told reporters.
Russia said the rival sides had promised to start direct talks despite fears that the standoff over Assad’s fate at the conference would scupper the push for a political solution to Syria’s devastating civil war.
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 said they were taken aback by the combative tone struck by Moallem at the one-day conference in Montreux, fearing follow-up negotiations would never get off the ground due to the acrimony.
However, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi signaled that both sides were ready to move beyond rhetoric to discuss prisoner swaps, local cease-fires and humanitarian aid.
“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 cease-fires,” he told a news conference following the day of formal speeches. Brahimi will meet with both parties separately Thursday.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon opened proceedings by calling for immediate access for humanitarian aid convoys to areas under siege. “Great challenges lie ahead but they are not insurmountable,” Ban said, condemning human rights abuses across the board.
Russia, which co-sponsored the Montreux meeting with the United States, said the rival Syrian delegations had promised to sit down Friday for talks expected to last a week.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov played down the recriminations.
“As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional statements, they blamed one another,” Lavrov told reporters. However, he added: “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.”
But there was little sign of compromise on the central issue of whether Assad should make way for a government of national unity.
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 I, but differ on whether it means Assad must go now.
Lavrov, who met Moallem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, urged Assad’s opponents and their foreign backers to not focus exclusively on leadership change.
Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation endorse an international plan for handing over power. Moallem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands, denouncing atrocities committed by rebels supported by the Arab and Western states whose delegations were sitting in the conference room.
“The West claims to fight terrorism publically while they feed it secretly,” Moallem said. “Syrians here in this hall participated in all that has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose government backs the rebels, said “it goes without saying that Assad has no role in Syria’s future.” He also called on foreign forces to withdraw from Syria, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militias.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 backer – should have a say. Iran was absent, shunned by the opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. A last-minute invitation from Ban to Iran was revoked after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks.
Commenting on 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 one that excluded Assad, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks should cover all topics of concern to the two sides, including the future of Assad.
Asked about this point, Wang told reporters: “All issues of concern to the two sides should be put on the table including the one you mentioned just now.”
The conference has raised no great expectations among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even taking part.
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.
Saudi Arabia, which backs the rebels, called for Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Kerry acknowledged Tehran could play a role in a solution. “ Iran certainly does have an ability to be helpful and make a difference,” he told reporters. “There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks or months, and my hope is they will want to join in a constructive solution.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said from Tehran that Iran’s exclusion made it unlikely the conference could succeed.
During the speeches in Montreux, the war went on in Syria.
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.