Syrians trade insults at Geneva peace talks
It took three years to bring Syrians together for negotiations, but it took less than an hour for acrimony and rancour to take over as diplomats bickered, fought and insulted each other at the start of long-awaited peace talks in Switzerland.
Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, appearing in the same room as the opposition for the first time, refused to countenance calls for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.
Instead, he claimed that the revolution against his rule comprised nothing more than terrorists sent to the country by "princes and emirs living in mud and backwardness".
He told opposition delegates sitting in the hall: "You should not be traitors to the Syrian people, agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people."
At one point he squabbled with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, refusing to keep to the time limit imposed on speeches.
"You live in New York, I live in Syria," he said. "I have the right to give the Syrian version in this forum."
In return, Ahmed al-Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, accused Assad of committing atrocities not seen in Europe since World War II, and demanded he face justice for war crimes.
"The pictures of torture are unprecedented except in the Nazi camps," he said, referring to the recent release of photographs of inmates allegedly tortured and murdered by the regime.
Outside the conference hall, fights broke out as anti-Assad Syrians approached a small pro-Assad demonstration and tried to address it.
The talks have been in the planning since the UN Security Council agreed 18 months ago to the "Geneva 1" communique, which proposed a transitional governing body as a way out of the country's impasse.
In the intervening period, more than 100,000 people have died and Syria has broken up into rival fiefdoms for the regime, the opposition Free Syrian Army and the al-Qa'ida jihadists of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams.
As many participants noted, the snow-topped mountains and glittering waters of Lake Geneva outside the conference hall, better known for hosting the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, were a startling contrast to the images of children being pulled from the rubble of bombed houses emerging from Syria at the same time.
Few expect the talks to lead to a breakthrough. The opposition says no progress can be made unless Assad stands down, in accordance with their understanding of "Geneva 1".
They were backed by John Kerry, the US secretary of state. "We need to deal with reality here," he said. "Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern."
That provoked Mr Muallem's furious response, which continued well beyond his allotted time, leading to his spat with Mr Ban. "I've come all this way in the airplane to talk about Syria," he said. "Nobody in this world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy to a president or government other than the Syrians themselves."
He spent much of his long and florid speech attacking states using "petrodollars" to export "Wahhabi" terrorism – a clear dig at Saudi Arabia and its hardline Islamic ideology.
He also complained about Syria's "back-stabbing neighbours", singling out Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, which has opened its borders with Syria to the opposition.
The meetings will move to Geneva today, where Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy, will preside over direct talks that in the first instance will be aimed at agreeing local ceasefires, particularly in Aleppo, and humanitarian access.
However, opposition delegates said they were no longer sure the two sides would even be sitting in the same room.
On the other hand, many delegates acknowledged that to have both sides under one roof at all was a major event in itself, and changing the mood of those present.
Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, who talked to both Syrian delegations during the day, said there were signs of compromise behind the tough rhetoric, which he described as "appealing to their local constituencies".
He said the formation of a transitional governing body would require "protracted negotiations", but added: "It is do-able if they want, with good intentions." (© Daily Telegraph, London)