Geneva talks underscore huge gap between Syrian regime and opposition
Efforts to resolve Syria's bloody crisis came up against the yawning gap between the parties on Wednesday as the government insisted that would not step down and called western-backed rebels fighting to overthrow him terrorists and traitors to their own people.
, the UN secretary-general, opened the one-day Geneva II conference – being held in the nearby town of Montreux – by urging the parties to act constructively to try to find a way out of a conflict that has cost an estimated 130,000 lives and destabilised the Middle East.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, spoke of "extraordinary suffering" in but set the political tone by stating that Assad would have to go: "There is no way the man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain the legitimacy to govern," he said. "One man and his henchmen can no longer hold an entire nation hostage."
Kerry's anti-Assad stance was followed by remarks from Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who called on "all external players to encourage Syrians to reach an accord, to refrain – and to prevent the sides – from attempts to predetermine final agreements, from other steps capable of disrupting the negotiating process."
But the most uncompromising speeches came from the Syrians themselves. "No one can grant or withdraw the legitimacy of the president … other than the Syrians themselves," Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, told colleagues meeting in a heavily-guarded hotel overlooking the waters of Lake Geneva. "This is their right and duty."
Outside the media centre a few dozen Syrians demonstrated noisily in favour of Assad. "In spirit and fire, we well redeem you Bashar," went one slogan. Another one was adapted from the early days of the Arab spring protests in Libya. "Allah, Bashar, Syria, and that's enough," they chanted.
Syrian national flags flew alongside the yellow clenched fist and Kalashnikov banner of , whose forces are fighting with the Syrian army. Across the road, a handful of opposition supporters, sheltered behind a clutch of Swiss gendarmes, hurled back abuse.
Further along the shore, the campaign group Avaaz dramatised a call for an immediate ceasefire with a macabre enactment. In it a man in an Assad mask stood gloating over a line of mock corpses, wrapped in bloody shrouds in the wreckage of a house hit by shell fire, domestic detritus scattered amid the charred ruins.
Inside, Muallem argued briefly with Ban when the UN head requested he keep his speech within the prescribed time limit. "You live in New York. I live in Syria," Muallem retorted. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum." He also launched a furious attack on the opposition. "If you want to speak in the name of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people or agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people," he said.
The US state department later condemned what it called Muallem's "inflammatory rhetoric."
Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, described the violence Assad had employed in crushing protests from the moment they began in March 2011 and accused him of employing "international mercenaries" such as Hezbollah, and backing al-Qaida groups to divide and smear his enemies.
"It is we who are engaged in a struggle against terrorism." Jarba said. "The revolution is facing Assad's terrorism and the terrorism he has brought into Syria."
Syrian state TV broadcast Jarba's speech on a split screen that showed the opposition leader on the right, under the heading "Montreux, Switzerland," and on the left footage of death and destruction under the heading "Terrorist crimes in Syria". It did not identify him.
The Geneva II conference is intended to launch a peace process in which the Syrian government and opposition negotiate the creation of a transitional governing body "by mutual consent" – a formula first agreed at the Geneva I conference 18 months ago.
Nothing in the opening addresses suggested this will be possible. Diplomats say the best that can be hoped for is that direct talks will not collapse at once, and be sustained by pressure from the respective backers of each Syrian side. Those talks are due to begin at UN headquarters in Geneva on Friday.
Jarba compared the opposition's commitment to a transition of power with the Assad government's refusal to countenance it. Munzer Aqbiq, his spokesman, poured scorn on Muallem's speech. "We are talking to people who are in a complete state of denial," said. "He did not even mention Geneva."
Overall, expectations are extremely low. But some Syrians see profound symbolic and political importance in an encounter that could alter the dynamics of the 34-month conflict. In this view, Syrians who have so far failed to commit to either side could begin to see that there is an alternative to the current stalemate.
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