Syria’s peace conference moved into a second day on Thursday with the warring sides showing no willingness to compromise as global powers seek to engineer head-to-head talks on ending the bloodshed.
The biggest push yet to end the conflict was marked by fiery exchanges on day one yesterday as the regime and the opposition clashed over President Bashar al-Assad’s fate at the UN meeting in Switzerland.
Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the conference, but diplomats believe that simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is a mark of some progress and could be an important first step.
After a day of formal speeches set to be followed this week by talks involving the two sides, UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged Syria’s regime and opposition to finally work together at the table.
“The world wants an urgent end to the conflict,” Ban said in a closing press conference at the talks in the Swiss town of Montreux yesterday. “Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate.”
But official statements made by the delegations gave no hint of compromise, as the two sides met on the shores of Lake Geneva for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
Branding the opposition “traitors” and foreign agents, Syrian officials insisted Assad would not give up power, while the opposition said he must step down and face trial.
“Assad will not go,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said on the sidelines of the conference.
In his speech, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem surprised observers with a vehement attack on the opposition that went on long beyond the allotted time of less than 10 minutes, forcing Ban to repeatedly ask him to wrap it up.
“They (the opposition) 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.
Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, called on the regime to “immediately” sign a deal reached at the last peace conference in Geneva in 2012 setting out “the transfer of powers from Assad, including for the army and security, to a transition government”.
Jarba said that would be “the preamble to Assad’s resignation and his trial alongside all the criminals of his regime”.
Leading a series of sharp US accusations against the Syrian regime, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Assad could not be part of any transitional government.
“There is no way, not possible in the imagination, that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain legitimacy to govern,” Kerry said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the talks will “not be simple, they will not be quick” but urged both sides to seize a “historic opportunity”.