Obama and Putin speak on eve of peace talks

No agreement between two leaders on desired outcome of Syria summit in Montreux

Swiss police secure the area of the Montreux Palace hotel where the “Geneva II” international conference will take place today. Photograph:  Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Swiss police secure the area of the Montreux Palace hotel where the “Geneva II” international conference will take place today. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Wed, Jan 22, 2014, 01:00

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, sponsors of the Syrian peace conference convening in the Swiss city of Montreux today, had a “businesslike and constructive” conversation ahead of the gathering, reported the Kremlin.

However, there is no meeting of minds on the outcome of the protracted dialogue between Syrians this event is designed to initiate.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad stressed the need for talks between government and opposition and for an international campaign to end “terrorism” – referring to the insurgency in his country.

But his opponents have adopted a different line. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “anyone is better for Syria than Assad” and British foreign secretary William Hague has called on Iran to halt military aid to his regime as Syrian warplanes, reportedly, bombed an insurgent-held neighbourhood in Aleppo city, killing 10.

The conference, dubbed Geneva II, meeting at the elegant Montreux Palace hotel, is a shambles. The gathering of 39 governments, UN, EU, Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and Arab League chiefs is taking place in Montreux because a Swiss watchmakers’ convention has taken over Geneva’s hotels. Syrian government ally Iran, a key actor, was uninvited for refusing to accept the western demand that the conference objective is to create a transitional authority that would exclude Mr Assad.

Greek refusal
The Syrian president’s delegation’s arrival was delayed four hours at Athens after a Greek firm refused to refuel the aircraft due to EU sanctions, prompting rescheduling of meetings between Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem and UN head Ban Ki-moon.

Originally planned to last two days, the international gathering has been reduced to one. The international event is meant to be followed by seven to 10 days of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government delegation and the opposition.

The 15-member opposition delegation, however, represents only a rump of the western- and Gulf-sponsored National Coalition after its largest constituent, the National Council, resigned in protest at coalition president Ahmed Jarba’s attendance. Four coalition-linked insurgent commanders are also participating.

The delegation was to include figures from the internal opposition, the Kurds, and significant rebel groups. The leading domestic opposition National Coordination Board and main Kurdish group, the Democratic Union party, which rules a swathe of territory in northeastern Syria, refuse to participate under the umbrella of the coalition, which has no support in Syria. The board and Kurds insisted on separate representation.

Islamic Front
The most powerful insurgent grouping, the Saudi-supported Islamic Front, has condemned the talks as “hollow”.

Geneva I, a one-day meeting held 18 months ago, called for an end to the violence, implementation of a six-point plan put forward by then mediator Kofi Annan, and formation of a transitional authority to assume executive powers.

While this body was meant to be mutually agreed by government and opposition, the western powers and the opposition have demanded an end to Dr Assad’s rule, while Russia and China have insisted he should be involved in the transition process.

The conflicting agendas of the US and Russia have bedevilled the political process while the situation on the ground has altered dramatically. Since Geneva I, the rebel Free Syrian Army, a divided collection of local groups, has been sidelined by fundamentalist factions, including al- Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) which reject talks.

Government troops have made gains in the suburbs of Damascus, Homs and around Aleppo, while the Islamic Front, a six-member alliance of Syrian fundamentalists, and its allies are fighting Isis, comprised largely of foreign jihadis. The rise of the jihadis has given pause to western powers, which do not want to see al-Qaeda penetration of Syria.