Bitter exchanges as Syria summit begins

Stark divisions in Montreux over Assad’s role in country’s future

Ill-tempered exchanges dominated the Syrian peace conference convened yesterday in the Swiss resort of Montreux.

While Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem accused the opposition of betraying their country, the head of the opposition's National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba, claimed President Bashar al-Assad is not fit to govern because of the atrocities his forces have allegedly committed against Syrian citizens.

The international gathering – known as “Geneva II” – brought together more than 40 countries, the EU, UN and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation in a bid to press the warring Syrian sides to begin belated direct negotiations on a plan to end the conflict put forward by a meeting in Geneva in June 2012.

The Syrian government delegation was isolated yesterday as it called for co-operation in the struggle against “terrorism” that Damascus argues has ravaged the country and killed from 100,000 to 130,000 Syrians.


Alleviate suffering
Virtually all the other delegations dwelt on the need to implement the "Geneva I" proposal for a transitional government and alleviate the sufferings of more than a third of Syria's 23 million people, who have either fled the country or been driven from their homes within Syria.

The government also rejected calls for Mr Assad to stand down, a demand put forward by western and Arab Gulf speakers, but flatly rejected by the government.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who hosted the conference, said that the "really hard work begins on Friday" when the two sides are set to sit down together in an effort to negotiate an end to the war and decide on the future government of the country.

“We have a difficult road ahead,” Mr Ban said. “But it can be done and it must be done.”

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he would meet separately in Geneva with the two sides today. He expects government and opposition representatives will meet face-to-face in the same room in spite of the bitter exchanges that took place in Montreux yesterday.

Mr Ban, US secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have warned the parties that if the conflict continues, Syria will face an "all-encompassing disaster".

All three warned, however, that the road to peace would be long and require active involvement of the international community.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times