A bitter dispute over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is casting a pall over this week's international peace talks in Switzerland, triggering harsh public exchanges between key leaders and placing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to Syria's brutal civil war seemingly even further out of reach.
The talks in the Swiss city of Montreux have been snake bitten from the start, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon first asking Iran to attend the conference and then having to back track and rescind the invitation after the Obama administration bashed the move and the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the negotiations if Tehran took part.
The Syrian peace conference finally got underway Wednesday, but the first day was, if anything, even messier and angrier than the run-up to the meeting had been. The two sides insulted each other, and made clear that they weren't willing to compromise over Assad's role in Syria if a peace accord was reached.
The U.N.'s top negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, even admitted that he wasn't sure that representatives from the Syrian opposition and the Assad government would be willing to sit down together when a round of substantive negotiations are scheduled to get underway in Geneva Friday.
"I'm going to meet them separately and see how best we can move," Brahimi told reporters Wednesday night. "Do we go straight on Friday into one room and start discussion or do we talk a little bit more separately? I don't know yet."
The decidedly undiplomatic opening of an international conference ostensibly dedicated to high-level diplomacy raised real questions about whether the talks have any chance of succeeding - and about whether the session should even have been held given the yawning gap between the two sides in a conflict that has already left more than 100,000 people dead.
The biggest point of contention revolves around Assad's future. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing Damascus and its allies in Tehran to accept the terms of the so-called Geneva Communique, a U.N.-sanctioned plan for a transition from the Assad regime to a government of national unity "with full executive authority."
"We really need to deal with reality," Kerry said in his opening address to the gathering. "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."
Kerry's remarks were echoed by Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba, who said the country's rebels would only accept a deal that would explicitly state that Assad would have to end his reign.
"Any talk about Assad remaining in power threatens to derail the Geneva 2 conference," he told the delegates.
Syrian officials immediately said that Assad wouldn't be going anywhere.
"There will be no transfer of power and President Bashar Assad is staying,"
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters.
International conferences are usually marked by seemingly endless speeches that don't really end up saying much of anything. Wednesday was very different. Syrian
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and sleeping in "five star hotels" while their countryman were being slaughtered.
Moualem portrayed the Syrian government as a vital partner in the international effort to prevent al Qaeda, which has emerged as a key belligerent in the Syrian conflict, from gaining a new safe haven to plot terror attacks against the West. Moualem
likened his country's own struggle to that of the U.S., which has been battling al-Qaeda since the terror attacks of Sept. 11.
"They have forgotten that terrorism was yesterday in the U.S.; today it is in Syria; as for tomorrow nobody knows," he said. "But what is sure is it shall not stop here."
As Moualem went well beyond his allotted speaking time, Ban, who was visibly frustrated, asked the Syrian to speed things up.
"Can you wrap up?" Ban asked.
Moualem refused, saying "this is my right."
"You live in New York, I live in Syria" he continued. "I have the right to give the Syrian version in this forum...Let me finish my speech."
Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, tried to play down the seriousness of the exchange. "Let's not make a Swiss mountain out of a molehill," he told //link// reporters.
After the conference's opening session, Ban sought to dampen expectations, saying it was an "historic" achievement simply to get the parties together.
"We did not expect instant breakthroughs from today's conference," he told reporters at the end of the opening ceremonies, noting that the "hard work" will begin on Friday.
Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, is scheduled to lead open-ended negotiations talks between the two parties starting on Friday. The former Algerian foreign minister, who has served as a high-level trouble-shooter in Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged the talks would be tough.
U.N. based diplomats said they expected him to put off the question of Assad's fate for the time being and to focus on promoting a series of confidence building measures -- including a plan to permit U.N. aid workers access to besieged Syrian towns -- that stand a greater chance of success. Syria has already proposed that it is willing to consider an agreement to allow access to besieged communities in Aleppo.
"We have had some fairly clear indicators that the parties are willing to discuss issue of access to need people, liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," Brahimi said.
Opposition sources say that they would welcome a commitment by Syria to provide greater U.N. access to besieged towns, and they recognize that armed opposition forces need to halt aid blockages in some pro-regime neighborhoods.
Still, they made clear that they fear negotiations aimed at ending Assad's hold on power will be hijacked by talks on humanitarian relief that will reinforce the need of the international community to deal with the Syrian leader.
If Wednesday was any indication, the rebels have little to worry about on that front. The question of Assad's future doesn't appear to be going anyway anytime soon.
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