Share story

MONTREUX, Switzerland — From its early moments Wednesday, the long-delayed peace conference on Syria was marked by acrimony when Syria’s foreign minister described Syrian rebels as “evil” and ignored appeals by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, to avoid invective or even to yield the floor.

By the end of the day, the sense that the new peace talks were headed for trouble was compounded when the proceedings ended without any hint of progress toward imposing local cease-fires or opening humanitarian corridors for the delivery of food and medicine to towns and cities.

In an evening news conference, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said that stopping terrorism, not sharing power, needed to be the priority when Syrian government officials sat down with the Syrian opposition Friday to discuss a political solution to the bloody conflict, a stance that also appeared to promise more confrontation.

Putting the best face on the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday night that it was significant that senior diplomats from 40 countries and organizations had gathered in the lakeside Swiss city of Montreux to initiate the conference. He said he knew the talks would be “tough” and described the conference as a “process,” which he implied could last for months, even years.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Several Syrians expressed hope that the conference signaled the start of a process in which Syrians might eventually overcome their differences.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Ibrahim al-Hamidi, a veteran journalist for the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper who is originally from the northern Syrian city of Idlib. “After three years of military struggle, when the opposition tried very hard to destroy the regime, and the regime tried very hard to crush the opposition, this is the first time the two delegations sit down in one room under U.N. auspices.”

But it was hard to escape the sense that the conditions for a productive negotiation between the Syrian government and the opposition had yet to be set.

As the conference opened Wednesday, sharp differences came to the fore. Kerry said it was unthinkable that President Bashar Assad, of Syria, could play a role in a transitional administration that would govern the country as part of a political settlement.

The establishment of such a transitional body by “mutual consent” of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition is the major goal of the conference. “The right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles,” Kerry said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov challenged the U.S. insistence that Assad be excluded from a transitional administration, saying the conference had to “refrain from any attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.”

While the differences between the U.S. and Russian positions were outlined in civil tones, diplomatic restraint was abandoned when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who will lead the Syrian government’s face-to-face talks with the opposition, took the floor and accused Arab nations of financing terrorism and conspiring to destroy his country.

Speaking for more than 30 minutes, Moallem also accused insurgents of “sexual jihad” by using brainwashed women as sex slaves and engaging in incest. When Ban asked that Moallem wind up his lengthy speech, the Syrian official shot back: “You live in New York; I live in Syria.”

After Ban again urged him to be concise, Moallem said he would conclude soon, adding: “Syria always keeps its promises.” But he continued with his denunciations of the opposition and Ban later lamented that his injunction that participants take a constructive approach to the crisis “had been broken.”

Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition, spoke of children being executed by government forces, of 200,000 “martyrs” in the course of the uprising, and 9 million residents forced into exile or internally displaced. He said the opposition would join the talks in hopes of achieving a “a full solution,” based on transferring all of Assad’s state authority to a transitional body.

He also called on the government to halt the targeting of civilians and to withdraw all foreign forces, a reference to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

But he asked: “Do we have such a partner” in the talks?

Jarba has said from the start that the Syrian opposition will never accept a role for Assad in a transitional government, and he wondered aloud if the negotiators that the Syrian president had sent to Switzerland were prepared to contemplate that outcome.

“We want to be sure we have a Syrian partner in this room.” Jarba added. “Do we have such a partner?”

Asked whether the United States had any way of putting more leverage on the Assad government, Kerry suggested the Obama administration would back “augmented” support for the opposition, among other options.

But Kerry was vague about those options.

The fighting, meanwhile, continued in Syria, and activists in rebel-held areas reported 76 people were killed, including nine women and six children.

There had been hopes for a nationwide cease-fire to accompany the start of negotiations, but it appeared that even a local cease-fire was beyond the ability of the two sides to arrange.

Material from McClatchy Foreign Bureau is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.