The first day of the talks on Wednesday was dominated by fierce
rhetoric from President Bashar al-Assad's government and its foes.
Brought together for the first time in almost three years of war,
each accused the other of atrocities and showed no sign of
Despite the bitterness, officials still hope they can salvage the
process by starting with more modest, practical measures to ease the
plight of millions of people on the ground, especially in areas cut
off from international aid.
"We have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are
willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, the liberation
of prisoners and local ceasefires," U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said.
More than 130,000 people are believed to have been killed, nearly a
third of Syria's 22.4 million people have been driven from their
homes and half are in need of international aid, including hundreds
of thousands in areas cut off by fighting.
Wednesday's opening ceremony saw global powers vigorously defend
their sides, with Western countries, Arab states and Turkey all
joining the opposition in demanding a transitional government that
would exclude Assad.
Russia, his main global supporter, said the focus of talks should be
on fighting "terrorism", a word the Syrian government applies to all
of its armed opponents.
In the most dramatic moment of the conference, Assad's foreign
minister accused opposition fighters of raping dead women, killing
foetuses and eating human organs, drawing a rebuke from U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for using inflammatory language.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also dismissed any suggestion that
Assad might leave power, saying no international forum had the right
to question the president's legitimacy. Western and Arab states
declared Assad must go.
The main negotiations, expected to last up to a week, are not due to
begin until Friday, giving mediators a day to lower the temperature
and focus on pragmatic steps.
U.N. envoy Brahimi was due to meet the two Syrian delegations
separately on Thursday in Montreux, a Lake Geneva resort. Beginning
on Friday, the talks will move to the city of Geneva, where Brahimi
will shuttle back and forth between the two delegations.
One of the opposition negotiators, Haitham al-Maleh, said the mood
was positive despite the tough first day. He spoke of a two-stage
process, with practical steps like prisoner swaps, ceasefires, the
withdrawal of heavy weapons and setting up aid corridors being dealt
with first, before the political future.
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The talks remain fragile, however, with both sides threatening to
pull out — the government says it will not discuss removing Assad,
while the opposition says it will not stay unless Assad's removal is
the basis for talks.
"There is an international willingness for this to succeed, but we
don't know what will happen," Maleh said. "It is possible that (the
government) might withdraw. We will withdraw if Geneva takes another
course and deviates from the transition, to the government narrative
that they are fighting terrorism."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the contentious
speeches that opened the talks, and emphasised the positive: "As
expected, the sides came up with rather emotional rhetoric. They
blamed one another," he told reporters.
"For the first time in three years of bloody conflict... the sides — for all their accusations — agreed to sit down at the negotiating
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, one of the staunchest
backers of the opposition, said: "Hope exists, but it's fragile. We
must continue because the solution to this terrible Syrian conflict
is political and needs us to continue discussions."
Among the many difficulties with the process, the opposition
delegation does not include the al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamist
militant groups who control much of the territory in rebel hands and
have denounced those attending the talks as traitors.
Rebel ranks have been divided, with hundreds killed in recent weeks
in battles between rival factions and the al Qaeda-linked Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant. Al Qaeda leader Mohammad al-Zawahri
called on fighters to unite.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Mariam
Karouny, Dominic Evans, Khaled Oweis, Gabriela Baczynska and John Irish; writing
by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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