GENEVA A major peace conference on how to resolve the Syrian crisis began here Wednesday as Syria’s government and main political opposition traded bitter accusations.
Delegates from Russia, the United States, the United Nations, Britain, the European Union, Syria and other countries are trying to find a way to restore peace to the country that has seen over 100,000 people dead in almost three years of continuing violence.
The opposition and the US said President Bashar al-Assad had no legitimacy and must step down from power.
Syria’s foreign minister said only Syrians could decide Assad’s fate.
The summit is discussing the Geneva communique which lays out a political transition plan for Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined the issue: “Our task here is to put an end to the tragic conflict going on in Syria, which is causing the Syrian people a lot of suffering. A conflict that is destroying an ancient land. We cannot let this wave of upheavals have an impact on neighbouring countries.”
Syria’s President Bashar al Assad faces growing calls especially from the US to step aside and even face trial in an international criminal court.
Addressing the conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We see only one option, a negotiated transition government formed by mutual consent That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government.”
And in a pointed reference to Kerry, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said: “Those who wish to speak in the name of Syria can be neither traitors nor collaborators with the enemy.”
The deeply entrenched positions of both sides underscores the difficulties faced by mediators.
Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba was equally clear about the direction he wished to take: “I ask you to transfer Assad’s powers to an interim government that will lay the first stone in building the new Syria,” said Euronews.
Iran has termed the talks as merely a “political show.”
“The Geneva II conference is a political show, which will not yield effective results and will require several other meetings,” said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Wednesday.
The conference, dubbed Geneva II, opened in the Swiss city of Montreux on Wednesday. Representatives of about 40 nations and international groups were invited to the meeting. The event will move to the UN office in Geneva on January 24.
The Iranian official also criticized UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for withdrawing invitation to Iran to attend the Geneva II talks, saying Washington exerted “too much” pressure on Ban in an attempt to prevent Tehran from taking part in the peace conference.
On January 19, Ban said Iran had been invited to the peace conference on Syria, but he later retracted the invitation.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned up at the venue to vent their frustration at influence from beyond their country’s borders.
One of them told Euronews: “We want peace, we want our people to choose our own president without any external pressure and we don’t want any more terrorism or foreign financial support for such groups.”
Two anti-Assad protesters also showed up, equally determined despite their numbers. This, they said, reflected the despair of the Syrian people.
Key figures here – including Ban Ki-moon, John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov and William Hague – have publicly reminded the Syrian warring parties of the real price of this conflict.
An “all encompassing disaster” said the UN secretary general, which Russia’s foreign minister added had caused “incalculable suffering” to the Syrian people.
At a fractious evening news conference, during which there were repeated calls for calm, Ban spoke of the suffering in Syria, saying: “Enough is enough. The time has come to negotiate.”
He said “the really hard work begins on Friday”, adding: “We have a difficult road ahead, but it can be done and it must be done.”
Ban dwelt on the Geneva communique, which calls for a transitional government in Syria, saying he was disappointed with the attitudes of both the Syrian government and its ally, Iran.
UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he would speak to the Syrian government and opposition delegations separately on Thursday and that he hoped both teams would meet in the same room on Friday.
This would be the first face-to-face meeting between the Syrian government and the main opposition – the National Coalition – since the conflict began in 2011.