MONTREUX, Switzerland — From its early moments today, the long-delayed peace conference on Syria was marked by acrimony when Syria’s foreign minister described Syrian rebels as “evil” and ignored appeals by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, to avoid invective or even to yield the floor.
By the end of the day, the sense that the new peace talks were headed for trouble was compounded when the proceedings ended without any hint of progress toward imposing local cease-fires or opening humanitarian corridors for the delivery of food and medicine to besieged towns and cities.
In an evening news conference here, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said that stopping terrorism, not sharing power, needed to be the priority when Syrian government officials sat down with the Syrian opposition Friday to discuss a political solution to the bloody conflict, a stance that also appeared to promise more confrontation.
Putting the best face on the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters today night that it was significant that senior diplomats from 40 countries and organizations had gathered in the lakeside Swiss city of Montreux, to initiate the conference. Kerry insisted that he had always known that the talks would be “tough” and described the conference as a “process,” which he implied could last for months or even years.
Several Syrians also expressed hope that the conference signaled the start of a process in which Syrians might eventually overcome their differences.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Ibrahim al-Hamidi, a veteran journalist for the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper who is originally from the northern Syrian city of Idlib. “After three years of military struggle, when the opposition tried very hard to destroy the regime, and the regime tried very hard to crush the opposition, this is the first time the two delegations sit down in one room under U.N. auspices.”
But it was hard to escape the sense that the conditions for a productive negotiation between the Syrian government and the opposition had yet to be set. Kerry tried to set a positive tone on the eve of the conference by engaging in a calculated display of comity with Ban and Sergei V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister — a gesture that appeared intended to play down the lobbying effort by the United States to persuade the United Nations to withdraw its invitation to Iran to attend the meeting. “Do we look happy?” Lavrov quipped as the three held hands for a photo opportunity.
But when the conference opened today, sharp differences came to the fore. Kerry said it was unthinkable that President Bashar Assad of Syria could play a role in a transitional administration that would govern the country as part of a political settlement. The establishment of such a transitional body by “mutual consent” of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition is the major goal of the conference. “The right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles,” Kerry said.
Lavrov challenged the U.S. insistence that Assad be excluded from a transitional administration, arguing that the conference had to “refrain from any attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.”
While the stark differences between the U.S. and Russian positions were outlined in civil tones, that diplomatic restraint was abandoned when Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister who will lead the Syrian government’s face-to-face talks with the opposition, took the floor and accused Arab nations of financing terrorism and conspiring to destroy his country.
Speaking for more than 30 minutes, Moallem also accused insurgents of “sexual jihad” by using brainwashed women as sex slaves and engaging in incest. When Ban asked that Moallem wind up his lengthy speech, the Syrian official shot back: “You live in New York, I live in Syria.”
After Ban again urged him to be concise, Moallem said he would conclude soon, adding that “Syria always keeps its promises.” But he continued with his denunciations of the opposition and Ban later lamented that his injunction that participants take a constructive approach to the crisis “had been broken.”
Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian opposition, opened with the story of Hajar al-Khatib, 11, who he said was shot by government forces as she rode a bus to school in Rastan near the central city of Homs in May 2011. That was in the early days of the protest movement that sparked the uprising. “Ten thousand children have died because of the Syrian army,” he added, singling out not only Assad but the army, which many pro-government Syrians distinguish from the political leaders as an object of patriotism.
Jarba has said from the start that the Syrian opposition will never accept a role for Assad in a transitional government, and he wondered aloud if the negotiators that the Syrian president had sent to Switzerland were prepared to contemplate that outcome. “We want to be sure we have a Syrian partner in this room.” Jarba added. “Do we have such a partner?”
Asked whether the United States had any way of putting more leverage on the Assad government, Kerry suggested that the Obama administration would back “augmented” support for the opposition, among other options. But Kerry was vague about those options, and the White House has been extremely reluctant to use force in Syria or to even treat the Syria crisis as its principal foreign policy challenge.
On the sidelines, attempts at dialogue turned to scuffles. Outside, pro-government protesters waved the flags of the Syrian government and Hezbollah and chanted, “God, Bashar and nothing else!” An opposition activist, Rami Jarrah, approached them with a television camera and interviewed them. But when he asked if Assad should be tried for war crimes, they began shouting and pushing.
Inside, the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, was asked by a Syrian opposition journalist from Aleppo, Adnan Hadad, about the barrel bombs that the military had used on neighborhoods in his city, killing hundreds in recent weeks.
“This is the kind of question you ask if you support the terrorist groups,” Zoubi said “Ask the Saudi foreign minister.”
In an interview, Fayssal Mekdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, said he welcomed sitting face to face with the government’s opponents. “We look forward to looking them in the eye,” he said, “and asking them, ‘Who do you represent?’”