The Geneva II peace conference opened on Wednesday, with opposing sides in the Syrian conflict unwavering on their positions.
The Syrian opposition and its supporters remained steadfast in its calls for President Bashar al-Assad to resign, whereas the Syrian government delegation harshly criticized international interference in the conflict.
Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba ended the first day of the Geneva II peace talks by calling for an independent international inquiry into allegations of detainee torture at the hand of government forces.
“We demand an international independent investigation committee to inspect the sites of torture and the regime’s prisons,” he said. “Our people have suffered enough killing and destruction. ”
Earlier on Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, called the country’s opposition “traitors” and foreign “agents.”
“They claim to represent the Syrian people. If you want to speak in the name of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people, agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people,” Muallem said in his lengthy opening remarks on Wednesday morning.
“The hopes of the Syrian people rely on me and the Syrian delegation,” he said. “Today is the moment of truth that was lost in the fabricated and slander campaigns.”
Muallem slammed the “external terrorism” taking place in Syria: “Syria will do everything in its power to defend itself in any way possible.”
He fired a broadside at the Gulf monarchies which back the Syrian opposition.
“It is regrettable to me and to the people of Syria that representatives of states in this room are sitting with us today, while blood is on their hands – countries that have sent weapons … encouraged and financed terrorism,” Muallem said.
Muallem was interrupted halfway through his speech by UN leader Ban Ki-moon, who asked him to wrap up his speech, more than three times over the seven-minute limit allotted for opening statements.
Jarba followed, defending the opposition from Muallem’s accusations.
“The use of weapons was not our choice, but was forced upon us to defend ourselves,” he said. “The regime is fabricating news and carrying out a deception campaign.”
Jarba claimed that the Syrian government was responsible for the presence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“The FSA is confronting terrorists that were brought by Assad into the country,” he said.
Jarba added that any talk of Assad staying in power was unacceptable for the Western-backed SNC, and called on the government delegation to sign the Geneva I agreement, which would exclude Assad from a transitional government.
He said the creation of a transition government would be “the preamble to Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and his trial alongside all the criminals of his regime.”
The United States called Muallem’s speech “inflammatory.”
“Instead of laying out a positive vision for the future of Syria that is diverse, inclusive and respectful of the rights of all, the Syrian regime chose inflammatory rhetoric,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyeh made damning statements about the Syrian government.
“This regime is imprisoning its people, its artists and its intellectuals and even putting its supporters in jail,” Attiyeh said.
Attiyeh rejected accusations by Muallem against Gulf countries. “Wahhabism, about which the regime is talking, did not besiege or starve its people,” he said.
“There would be no settlement at the expense of Syrian people’s values and it is not acceptable that some groups think they are here at the summit to defeat their foes,” he added.
Lebanese Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour brought up the consequences of the Syrian conflict on its neighbor.
“We knew interfering in Syrian affairs would drag [Lebanon] into a dark phase and lead to destruction and chaos in the country,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is what happened.”
“Challenges affected Lebanon’s security and this is clear in the prevailing terrorism and takfiri ideologies that never existed before in the region,” he added.
“We urge the reconstruction of Syria, which will protect regional and international peace, and we call for this summit to be a path towards national reconciliation and dialogue between different Syrian groups.”
The conference had begun with formal speeches by Ban, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ban urged Syria’s warring sides to seize the opportunity to resolve their conflict, calling for full and immediate humanitarian access in Syria, especially in besieged areas.
“After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of hope,” Ban said. “You have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to render a service to the people of Syria.”
Lavrov said the conference was tasked with finding a solution to the “tragic conflict” and to prevent a spillover in the region, a day after a deadly bombing hit the suburbs of Lebanon’s capital. The bombing was claimed by the al-Nusra Front, a rebel group fighting in Syria.
Lavrov called on “external players” not to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs, adding that the internal political opposition should be part of a Syrian national dialogue, and that Iran, not present at the talks, should be part of the international dialogue.
“There is a historic responsibility on the shoulders of all participants,” he told delegates from Syria’s warring sides and some 40 countries.
Kerry followed, saying that Geneva II would be a “tough and complicated negotiation.”
However, he reiterated the US position that Assad could in “no way” be part of a transitional government.
“We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent,” Kerry said. “That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern.”
Meeting for the first time since the start of the conflict, the two sides could not be further apart as the conference kicks off in Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The opposition is heading into the conference with a sole aim – toppling Assad – while the government says any talk of removing the Syrian leader is a “red line” it will not cross.
So expectations are low, but top global diplomats gathered for the conference believe that simply bringing the two sides together is a mark of some progress and could be an important first step.
A total of 45 representatives were to speak at the conference’s opening on Wednesday, including delegates from France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and the European Union.
“This is not…a way to gain time or make claims without evidence and unfounded accusations. This is about finding a political deal for Syria concerning this transitional authority with full executive powers,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during his address at the conference.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that Assad’s hands were “stained in blood,” and called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria,referring specifically to the pro-Assad Iran and Hezbollah.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the conference, noting to its participants that “in case negotiations fail,thousands of Syrians will pay the price and Syria’s future will be at stake.”
No direct talks between government and opposition delegations are expected until Friday, when opposition and governmental delegations will meet in Geneva for negotiations that officials have said could last seven to 10 days.
Erupting after government forces cracked down on protests in March 2011, the civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives and forced millions from the homes.
The United Nations stopped updating its death toll in the summer of 2013, stating that it could no longer verify information coming from inside the country.
With no one ready for serious concessions, world powers will be looking for short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localized ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.
Notably absent from the talks is crucial Assad backer Iran, after Ban reversed a last-minute invitation when the opposition said it would boycott if Tehran took part.
Iran’s President Hassan Rohani on Wednesday cast doubts on the chances of success in Syrian peace talks, Mehr news agency reported.
“All the signs show that we cannot have much hope that the Geneva II conference will find a solution to the problems of the Syrian people and the fight against terrorism,” Rohani said before leaving to attend the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
China, which has usually kept quiet on the subject, issued a statement on Monday calling for a Syrian solution the conflict.
“The political transition process in Syria must be Syrian-led, and the future of Syria, ultimately, can only be decided by the Syrian people themselves,” the statement read.
It took months of discussions to convince all sides to participate, with the most prominent opposition group, the SNC, only agreeing at the 11th hour.
That move has seen the Coalition branded as traitors by some in Syria, including Islamist rebels who have often been at the forefront of fighting.
And the biggest bloc in the opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Council, pulled out of the coalition ahead of the talks saying it refused to negotiate with Assad.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)