Montreux, Switzerland – The moment the eyes of the warring Syrian delegations met in Switzerland was historic. But peace talks between representatives from Syria’s government and opposition could still drag on for weeks, if not months.
During the preliminary session at the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace on the shores of Lake Geneva, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem continued to blame “terrorists” for the violence; Syrian government routinely uses that word to describe all armed opposition.
Muallem mentioned the word “terrorism” 34 times in his 34-minute speech and made no reference whatsoever to the possibility for political change.
The summit is intended to discuss the Geneva communiqué, which lays out a political transition plan for Syria.
Muallem showed further defiance by running over his allotted 15-minute slot, bickering with UN Chief Ban Ki-moon, and ignoring his attempts to intervene.
“Muallem’s terse exchange with Ban was not arbitrary. He is an experienced diplomat and he knew what he was doing. He wanted to send a message that he has no respect for the conference or its outcome,” Noura al-Ameer, a member of the opposition delegation who sat in the hall, told Al Jazeera.
The opposition is in Switzerland because they want a new transitional executive that excludes President Bashar al-Assad. The proposed transitional body would be tasked with ending the ongoing bloodshed and putting Syria onto a path towards elections and democracy.
Syria’s information minister told Al Jazeera in Montreux that opposition hopes are simply “a political delusion”.
“The president will finish his constitutional term first of all. Syria is a state and not a farm. Then there will be elections and the person who wins can stay in power,” Omran al-Zoubi said.
Presidential elections are scheduled for 2014 and Assad has said he sees no reason why he couldn’t run.
All 40 delegations, including the Syrian government’s ally Russia, have signed onto the Geneva communique, which calls for a transitional government.
The Syrian regime, however, says it needs to fight “terrorism” first.
“How can you expect us to sit at one table with the opposition when people on the ground are slaughtering each other?” Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s envoy to the UN, told Al Jazeera.
Members of the opposition delegation said the position of the government was expected, but they are still mostly optimistic.
“We are winning so far, the international community is on our side and the fact that the Assad regime came to Geneva was a win for us,” Burhan Gallioun, a member of the opposition delegation, told Al Jazeera. “They could have stayed in Damascus and remained defiant, especially as they don’t agree to the terms of the Geneva communiqué. They came forcefully under Russian pressure.”
‘Stalling and distortion’
Both government and opposition delegates know that the talks could potentially drag on for months. The UN has already reserved a conference room for the delegations in Geneva for at least a month, according to media reports.
“After I heard Muallem’s speech, I knew that the regime will adopt the policy of stalling and distortion,” Michel Kilo, a prominent opposition figure who is also part of the delegation, told Al Jazeera. “My fear is it can continue to do that for four, five years, until it gains foothold on the ground.”
On the ground in Syria, government troops are making progress in their fight against rebels across the country. Just as the preliminary session was taking place, Assad’s forces secured all the routes to Aleppo International Airport, allowing it to re-open for the first time in more than a year.
This could potentially embolden the government’s position during negotiations and reiterate that Assad, whose role is the main sticking point, should remain in power.
Western diplomats told Al Jazeera that even if these talks fail, the fact that the two sides were brought together was a success. Failure would expose the intransigence of the regime and its unwillingness to negotiate, western diplomats said.
The opposition, however, has a lot to lose if the talks do not bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.
They are meeting government representatives amid sentiments of indignation from opposition fighters and civil activists on the ground who insist that talking to Assad’s officials is “a betrayal of the blood” of those killed by the regime.
‘Put the people first’
The main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, was plagued by resignations and infighting in the days preceding the peace talks. Its backers, including the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, had to bend over backwards to convince the fractured rivals of Assad to attend the conference.
are all Syrians… Put the people first”]
Many members who refused to attend said they were doing so to reflect the wishes of people on the ground.
A failure of the Geneva talks could potentially lead to further divisions in the opposition and a heightened anger for “wasting time” as dozens of people are dying in Syria daily.
More than 130,000 people have been killed in nearly three years of conflict. Close to nine million Syrians have been displaced from their homes.
The Geneva communiqué calls for an end to fighting and the creation of humanitarian corridors to besieged areas in the country.
The UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos appealed to the rival delegations to focus on an agreement on these points before tackling other contentious issues.
“Remember your people, remember that you are all Syrians,” Amos said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “You can be talking about your child, your mother, your father of your all family that could be facing this horror. Put the people first.”