Peace negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition – which had for so long seemed doomed never to take place – have finally started, bringing flickering hopes of ending the bloodiest and longest conflict of the Arab Spring.
The future of President Bashar al-Assad was always going to be the most difficult issue in the proceedings, with the fundamental demand of the opposition and its Western backers that he must leave power. The regime’s delegation rejected this at the outset, leading to apprehension that the talks may founder.
At the close of the day’s session, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said he “was not surprised” by the stance from Damascus, but insisted there was a momentum building to bring the strife, now entering its third year, to an end. The US President, Barack Obama, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have had a lengthy conversation about the matter and “parallel moves” were under way which could not be disclosed at present, Mr Kerry said.
He also left the door open for Iran to participate in the talks, acknowledging that, as a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime, it could help to broker a ceasefire. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, had to rescind an invitation to Tehran to attend the current talks, known as Geneva II, after vociferous objections from Washington. But Mr Kerry said: “Iran does certainly have an ability to be helpful and make a difference. We hope they will decide to be constructive and make a decision to operate in a way forward that can allow them to do so. 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.”
Despite this, the bitter accusations and recriminations which have accompanied the remorseless violence on the ground in Syria could not be kept out as the conference got under way in Montreux, Switzerland.
Warning: Graphic content
The below gallery contains very graphic images released by the authors of the report. We have taken the decision to publish these pictures to inform our readers of the alleged abuses being carried out in Syria
Walid Muallem, the Foreign Minister from Damascus, and Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition coalition, attempted to match each other with accusations of atrocities committed. Seldom have diplomatic negotiations been visited by such graphic descriptions of murders and mutilations, rapes and torture – the deadly vendettas of Homs and Aleppo coming to the shores of Lake Geneva.
The foreign backers of the respective sides came in for their share of the blame for the dismemberment of Syria, with Mr Muallem accusing them of sponsoring terrorism. “Seated among us are representatives of countries who have blood of our people on their hands,” he said.
Mr Kerry and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, countered that initial peaceful protests had been met with brutal repression by Syrian security forces. They pointed out the millions of dollars spent by the international community in attempting to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and refugees flowing into neighbouring countries. Ahmed Davutoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, tried sarcasm, saying: “Yes we have 700,000 terrorists from Syria in our country – 8,500 child terrorists. Some of them are just a few months old.”
Mr Muallem rounded on Mr Kerry, who had stressed that a previous meeting about the Syrian crisis, Geneva I (which took place without the regime’s participation last year), had stipulated that Mr Assad would have no role in a new political landscape. “No one, no one, Mr Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the President other than Syrians themselves. We shall be holding a referendum on whatever happens here,” he said. “The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly.”
He said other supporters of the rebels were “princes and emirs living in mud and backwardness”, by which he meant Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The “backstabbing neighbour” – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister – also got a name-check.
The opposition’s Free Syrian Army, declared Mr Muallem, was “free to cannibalise human hearts and livers, barbecue heads, recruit child soldiers and rape women”. There were, he added, “Syrians here in this hall [who] participated in all that has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent”.
He went on: “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.”
Mr Ban, hosting the meeting, attempted to restore calm, saying: “We have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue. Please refrain from inflammatory rhetoric.”
Then, as Mr Muallem overran his allocated speaking time, the UN Secretary-General repeatedly asked the Foreign Minister to “wrap up”. But Mr Muallem was not prepared to give up the microphone. “I came here after 12 hours in the airplane. I must finish my speech,” he said. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum, after three years of suffering. This is my right. You live in New York, I live in Syria.”
Mr Jarba, when his turn came, stuck to the time limit. He held up photographs from a report published on the eve of the conference which sought to show that the Assad regime had tortured and killed up to 11,000 prisoners. The real “terrorists and mercenaries” were the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose members had been fighting on behalf of President Assad, the opposition leader said.
“It is we who are engaged in a struggle against terrorism. The revolution is facing al-Assad’s terrorism – the terrorism he has brought into Syria”, said Mr Jarba. “Al-Assad cannot stay on his throne. We cannot have so many people dying because one man wants to stay on the throne. We want the Al-Assad delegation here to be a free delegation and help us build a peaceful Syria. Have we got such partners?”
There are no reasons to think there will be defections en masse from either side. But with the death toll climbing to 130,000 and the number of refugees reaching two million, there was acknowledgment that the talking should continue. “Time is like blood for the Syrian people” said Mr Jarba.
Everything Mr Muallem said was couched in terms of “fighting terrorism” but he acknowledged the need to start “rebuilding Syria’s social and material structure” and agreed that “dialogue is the foundation of this process”.
Face-to-face talks between the two sides are due to start tomorrow. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator, said both sides had shown willingness to engage on humanitarian access, local ceasefires and exchanges of prisoners.
The acrimony in the fractured and wounded Syrian society was not restricted to the delegations. Out on the street, a small group of activists chanted “in spirit and fire, we will redeem you, oh Bashar” as they waved the Syrian flag, but also that of Hezbollah. A little bit further along was another protest, by the human rights group Avaaz, in which “corpses” lay in a “burnt and destroyed house”, with a man in an Assad mask standing over them.
Murad al-Nouri had wandered from one to the other; the financial analyst, 54, had made the train journey from Geneva, where he lives, to the conference with his nine-year-old grandson, Qais. “We always thought we would go back to Syria to live, but would you go back now [and] take this boy to live there?” he asked. “My father was imprisoned by Bashar’s father’s people and I had always felt there was need for reform and proper democracy, but both sides are behaving now in a way which is inhuman. It will be criminal if the people holding these talks cannot achieve an end to all this suffering. The Syrian people will never forgive them.”
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