Rancour and rage made for an inauspicious beginning to the long-delayed peace conference on Syria that opened Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.
With representatives of Syrian opposition forces, on the one hand, holding up photos of torture victims and demanding war-crimes trials for the country’s leaders, and Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, on the other hand, denouncing opposition members as terrorists who cut open pregnant women, there seems little likelihood these talks will achieve much, at least in the short term.
It now only is hoped that the two sides will agree to sit in the same room when “direct” talks between the parties are to begin Friday at the United Nations facilities in Geneva.
It all shows how unprepared the parties really are to negotiate.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad smells victory as every day it gains more ground. On Wednesday, it was the airport in Aleppo that reopened, after the area surrounding it was taken back from rebel forces that had held it for several months. With such gains, there is little incentive for the regime to give an inch to the opposition, let alone agree to a transitional government that would mean the end of President al-Assad in power.
For its part, the opposition is fragmented with most rebel groups refusing to attend the conference, believing the process only serves to enshrine Mr. al-Assad in power. The one opposition group that is attending, the Syrian National Coalition, came to Montreux largely because of pressure exerted by Washington. Nervously looking over its shoulder, the SNC is not likely to make any concessions to the regime.
But, if the regime and opposition are far apart, so too are the hosts of the conference, the United States and Russia. Each appears to have a very different outcome in mind.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the opposition and its foreign backers not to focus exclusively on leadership change in Damascus.
“The main thing is to start the process,” he said, emphasizing that “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.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, led a fierce denunciation of the Syrian regime and vowed to increase support for the opposition attempting to topple Mr. al-Assad.
“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,” Mr. Kerry insisted. He was responding to an interview Mr. al-Assad gave earlier this week in which he mused that he’d probably run again for president in elections after the peace conference. In the same interview, the Syrian leader described as “a joke” the notion that members of the opposition would have any role in government.
Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird unequivocally backed the Kerry position. He argued that it was Mr. al-Assad who first brought terrorists into the conflict, in the form of the militant Shia organization Hezbollah and paramilitary fighters from its state sponsors in Iran. Other groups, including affiliates of al-Qaeda, then came in through the back door to fight against the regime.
“The terrorist threat that is developing in Syria is real,” Mr. Baird said. “It is a threat to the stability of the entire region and beyond. It is a war we have seen before on the streets of Baghdad, and its agents are ones who have been hardened by the wars of the last decade.”
One sign of progress being trumpeted at the Geneva conference is that the two sides have agreed to address matters of mutual interest in the talks beginning Friday. These “relatively less difficult issues [include] confidence-building measures, humanitarian aid and prisoner swaps,” said Mr. Lavrov, who hoped that “through this, some sort of relations between the two delegations should be created.”