Syria’s government and opposition, meeting face to face for the first time at a UN peace conference, angrily spelled out their hostility yesterday as world powers also restated contrasting views on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused al-Assad of war crimes that recalled Nazi Germany and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in Switzerland sign up to a plan for a transition of power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said al-Assad would not bow to outside demands and painted a graphic picture of “terrorist” rebel atrocities supported by Arab and Western states, who back the opposition and were present.
The US and Russia also revealed their differences over al-Assad in speeches that began what was to be a day of formal presentations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who exchanged sharp words with Moualem when the Syrian minister spoke for more than three times the 10-minute limit Ban had set, opened proceedings at Montreux on Lake Geneva by calling for immediate access to humanitarian aid for areas under siege.
“After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of fragile, but real hope,” Ban said, urging both sides to reach a comprehensive settlement based on the UN Geneva Communique, under which world powers called in 2012 for a transitional government to oversee change in Syria.
Western powers and Russia have sought to set aside their own sharp differences over whether al-Assad must be forced to make way for an interim administration and have backed the conference as a way to stop the spread of cviolence across the region.
However, Moscow and Washington differ on whether the 2012 accord — known as Geneva 1 — means that al-Assad must step down immediately. Western powers say that it does.
Showing the opposition’s determination to see through the demands of the rebels, Jarba called for the government delegation to turn against their president.
“We agree completely with Geneva 1,” Jarba said. “We want to make sure we have a partner in this room that goes from being a Bashar al-Assad delegation to a free delegation, so that all executive powers are transferred from Bashar al-Assad. My question is clear. Do we have such a partner?”
Turning around the government’s accusations that the rebels have fostered al-Qaeda and other militants, Jarba said it was al-Assad’s forces which, by targeting mainstream opposition groups, had created the conditions for al-Qaeda to thrive.
Moualem called on foreign powers to stop “supporting terrorism” and to lift sanctions against Damascus, while insisting that al-Assad’s future was not up for discussion:
“We came here as representatives of the Syrian people and state, and everybody should know that nobody in this world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy of a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves,” Moualem said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s opposition to “outside players” meddling, but he also said Iran — al-Assad’s main foreign backer — should have a say.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent.”
“That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government,” Kerry said. “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.”
Iran was not represented.