Negotiators representing Syria’s warring sides clashed at peace talks in Switzerland, exposing deep divisions on how to end a three-year conflict that’s convulsed the Middle East.
Disagreements over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marred the meeting that brought together 40 countries and organizations, including the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia, in Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
“Nobody underestimates the difficulty of this issue,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at the end of today’s talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he didn’t “expect a sudden breakthrough.”
Ban said negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition would start in Geneva on Jan. 24. The UN’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is leading the talks, said he would be meeting separately with both parties tomorrow “to see if we go straight into one room or to talk a little bit more separately.”
Syria’s civil war has spread instability from countries bordering the Mediterranean to the Gulf, with fighting spilling into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Saudi Arabia has supplied arms to aid its Sunni Muslim co-religionists seeking Assad’s overthrow, while Shiite Muslim Iran has offered weapons and aid to Assad, whose Alawite sect is linked to its branch of Islam.
“These talks are destined to make very little progress,” Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, said in a phone interview, referring to the “acrimonious and mutual recriminations just in the opening statements.” In addition, many radical rebel groups were not even present at the talks, he said.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Assad would not step down and argued that only the Syrian people had the right to remove him. The president was branded a dictator by the opposition, which is demanding his exclusion from any transitional administration.
Muallem was soon in dispute with Ban as he exceeded the 10-minute limit imposed on all speakers, taking 34 minutes instead.
“You live in New York, I live in Syria,” Muallem told the UN secretary-general, who rang the bell several times to interrupt him. “After three years of suffering this is my right.” Syria had been stabbed in the back by neighboring countries and was a victim of terrorism, he said, with fighters from 83 different countries on its soil.
The U.S. responded to Muallem’s speech by accusing Syria of using the meeting to expound “inflammatory rhetoric,” according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
While all those involved have accepted the conditions of the conference -- the so-called Geneva I terms for a transitional government “by mutual consent” -- there are differing interpretations of what this means, in particular the role to be played by the 48-year-old Syrian president.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi told journalists on the sidelines of the conference today that his country had “reservations” about the Geneva I document. A dispute on the same issue led the UN on Jan. 20 to withdraw its invitation for Iran to join the talks.
“The regime has got no reason to shift from its position,” David Butter, Middle East analyst and associate fellow at foreign policy research group Chatham House in London, said in a phone interview. “And the opposition would lose the last shreds of representation” if it makes any concessions on Assad’s removal and a transitional government.
Kerry said mutual consent for a transitional government means it can’t “be formed by someone who is objected to by one side or the other.” Assad could not join an interim administration, he said.
Muallem also blamed the U.S. for aiding Syria’s enemies and said Russia has been a true friend. Any agreement reached in Switzerland would have to be ratified by Syrians in a referendum, he said.
Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, underlined the gap between the warring parties in a speech that described Assad as an Iranian-backed dictator who should face trial for his crimes. Jarba called for Assad’s executive powers to be removed and for a time frame for the transition.
“If the negotiations aren’t derailed at the outset, we can expect weeks or months of painful discussion and no miracle breakthroughs,” Shada Islam, a director at the Friends of Europe policy-advisory group in Brussels, said by phone.
The conflict has killed more than 130,000 people, Kerry said while more than 2 million were forced to flee the country, according to UN estimates. Syria is using a “strategy of war crimes” to kill 5,000 people a month, Human Rights Watch said in a report yesterday. Mass killings were “probably the most acute crisis of the last year,” the group said in its annual report.
The battle is being waged by an opposition splintered into more than 1,200 factions. Internal rifts have deepened, with increasingly powerful Islamist groups fighting both with the Assad regime and with the Western-backed rebel groups.
Russia, China and others argue that a negotiated end to the conflict is impossible without Iran, which has also sent troops from its elite al-Quds Force to assist Assad.
“Some of the countries that are fueling instability will take part in the conference,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said hours before heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos. “I don’t have much hope that this conference will be able to combat terrorism,” he said, according to Iranian Students News Agency.
To contact the reporters on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Montreux, Switzerland at email@example.com; Simeon Bennett in Montreux at firstname.lastname@example.org; Henry Meyer in Moscow at email@example.com