Montreux talks still far from crossing great divide on Syria

There was little goodwill amid plain disagreement at yesterday’s talks in the Swiss city

US secretary of state John Kerry speaks during a press conference in the context of the Geneva II peace talks, in Montreux, Switzerland, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Salvatore di Nolfi

US secretary of state John Kerry speaks during a press conference in the context of the Geneva II peace talks, in Montreux, Switzerland, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Salvatore di Nolfi


Syria’s opposing sides met yesterday for the first time since unrest erupted in March 2011 during the Arab Spring. However, the shimmering silver surface of Lake Geneva and the snow-covered peaks of the Alps did not contribute to a constructive launch of dialogue between the tenacious Syrian government and an opposition demanding regime change.

Closing the peace conference, host UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the Syrian government and the western- and Gulf-backed opposition that “enough is enough, the time has come to negotiate” an end to the nearly four-year conflict.

Mr Ban focused on mutual agreement on a transitional authority in Syria with full executive powers, but said that the process must be “Syrian-led and owned”, and the “fate of president Bashar al- Assad should be decided by the Syrian people”.

These words appeared to put him at odds with the US and its allies, which seek to determine both the course of the peace process and the fate of Mr Assad.

Earlier, Mr Ban had urged the sides to negotiate in good faith, but there was little goodwill generated by many of the 44 speeches.

An exchange between the US and Russia, sponsors of the event, began the sparring at “Geneva II”. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called on “external players” to stop intervening in Syria’s domestic affairs, while secretary of state John Kerry reiterated the US position that “there can be no place for Assad in Syria’s future”, laying the blame squarely on him for the brutal conflict that has overtaken his country.

Their diametrically opposed positions were reflected in the remarks of those who followed, beginning with the two Syrian speakers.

‘Blood on their hands’
Foreign minister Walid Muallem made it clear that Mr Assad would not stand down, and pointed out that among those attending the gathering were ministers of countries with Syrian “blood on their hands”.

He accused opponents of being “traitors” and “agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people” who use “their petrodollars to buy weapons [for] . . . foreign terrorists”, a reference to insurgents seeking to topple the government by force.

Syrian expatriate opposition National Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba said no one should speak of Dr Assad remaining in office and called on the prompt transfer of power to a transitional authority. He accused the government of introducing al-Qaeda into the conflict in Syria and equated Syrian prisons with “Nazi camps during the second World War”.

Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino berated colleagues for “making inflammatory speeches, blaming and shaming” and behaving in a manner “not conducive to constructive talks” between the sides. Her Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt agreed but said, in reply to a question from The Irish Times, that “negotiations begin this way”.

At the conclusion of the conference, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he will meet separately with the two sides today in Geneva to prepare for the opening of the first round of dialogue tomorrow.

Local ceasefires
However, an informed source said the difficult issue of the transitional authority will be postponed and the focus will be on securing local ceasefires, humanitarian access to besieged areas and release of prisoners. Experts from both sides and from the US and Russia will provide assistance.

Even this modest formula for an initial round could be unrealistic. While the government can deliver both access in areas it controls and prisoners, the coalition cannot as it has no leverage on fighters in the field. The majority of insurgents have denounced the talks as a betrayal of the cause of ousting Mr Assad by military means.

During his post-conference remarks, Mr Kerry said that international pressure would be exerted on the sides to reach agreement. What is seen “in the [coming] direct talks is not the full measure of what is happening”, he said.

In a bid to boost the credibility of the opposition, Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy has invited opposition groups to Cairo for talks on unifying their ranks.

In Damascus, the Syrian justice ministry dubbed a “fake” a report released ahead of the conference about the torture and killing of 11,000 of Syrian prisoners. The ministry said the document is a “politicised report that lacks objectively and professionalism”. The report, commissioned by anti-regime Qatar and executed by a British law firm, is said to be based on 55,000 digital images smuggled out of Syria by a defected police photographer.

The ministry claimed that the photos were of soldiers killed in action and men slain by “foreign terrorists” and argued that the dossier was intended “to undermine efforts to bring peace to Syria”.