MONTREUX, Switzerland – Furiously divided from the start, representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebellion against him threatened Wednesday to collapse a peace conference intended to lead them out of civil war.
Assad’s future in the country devastated by three years of bloodshed was at the heart of the sparring, which took place against a pristine Alpine backdrop as Syrian forces and rebel fighters clashed across a wide area from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south.
U.S. and U.N. officials said merely getting the two sides in the same room was something of a victory, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon’s claim that the discussions were “harmonious and constructive” was at odds with the testy exchange when he tried to get the podium from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” Moallem angrily told Ban. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.”
With little common ground, the two sides were to meet separately today with a U.N. negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who said he still did not know if they were ready to sit at the same table when talks begin in earnest Friday. But, Brahimi said, both sides had shown some willingness to bend on local cease-fires and delivery of humanitarian aid, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they were also working on possible terms for a prisoner exchange.
The Western-backed opposition said Assad’s departure was their starting point, echoing the position laid out by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“The resolution cannot be about one man’s – or one family’s – insistence on clinging to power,” Kerry said.
The response from the government delegation was firm and blunt.
“There will be no transfer of power, and President Bashar Assad is staying,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters.
Complicating matters, Assad’s delegates and the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition both claimed to speak for the Syrian people. But the coalition has little sway with rebel brigades, who largely oppose talks with the government. And the government, Kerry said, has no legitimacy or loyalty among people devastated by war.
Overshadowing the conference was Ban’s last-minute decision to invite – and then disinvite – Iran, which has funneled billions of dollars and Shiite fighters to Assad. Syria’s civil war has become a proxy battle for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which funds many of the Islamist rebel movements and which Assad accuses of supporting al-Qaida-inspired militants streaming into Syria.
“Those who are behind the acts of terrorism in Syria should choose between being an arsonist or a fireman. They cannot be both at the same time,” said Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari. He said Syria’s government had offered a cease-fire in Aleppo, although he did not spell out the terms, and rebel commanders say the government has used past truces to buy time.
Following Jaafari’s hourlong speech, the opposition refused to make final remarks, minutes after sending out a tweet about their preparations.
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