MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND— The long-awaited second international conference on Syria opened with confrontational statements by the country's government and opposition Wednesday, and their main international backers, Russia and the United States, also presented opposing viewpoints.
In the peaceful setting located between a placid lake and snow-capped mountains, the subject was war, rape, mutilation and child murder. Accusations flew in all directions, and participants presented starkly different views of Syria's future.
The president of the opposition coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, held up a photo of a mutilated body to help make his point, accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using terrorist fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah and troops from Iran's Revolutionary Guard to kill and oppress Syrian civilians. After accusing the Syrian leader of Nazi-style war crimes, Al-Jarba said the only aim of the conference, in keeping with the communique of the previous meeting 18 months ago, is to replace Assad with a transitional government.
The regime's representative, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, was defiant, accusing the opposition and its foreign supporters of bringing terrorism to Syria. Al-Moualem addressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry directly, saying no one can declare that President Assad is illegitimate.
Secretary Kerry had done just that in his speech to the opening session.
“There is no way, no way possible in the immagination, that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” Kerry said, adding that the only way forward is to create a transition government, without Assad.
The U.S. State Department called Moallem's speech "inflammatory," saying it was not in line with the aims of the gathering, intended to begin the process of forming a transitional government.
Moallem refused to give up the podium, despite requests from Ban Ki-moon, who asked him to refrain from inflammatory statements. Moallem angrily told the U.N. chief, "You live in New York. I live in Syria, I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.''
Kerry's partner in calling for the conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has a different view of the meaning of the communique from the previous meeting.
Lavrov told the diplomats from dozens of countries that radical groups are trying to impose their own vision on Syria. He also noted that the direct talks among the Syrian parties, which begin Friday in Geneva, will not be easy or quick, but said they do have a realistic chance of success.
That is an optimistic view compared to many analysts, who note that the two sides don't even want to talk about the same things. The opposition says it will only discuss Assad's departure. The Syrian government wants to talk about fighting “terrorism.”
The experts say there might be agreement on local ceasefires, the creation of humanitarian aid corridors and some prisoner exchanges. But even that is not certain, and some analysts say the best that can be hoped for is agreement to meet again.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'ite Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria.
But Iranian representatives were notably not among the more than 40 delegations invited to the conference, shunned by the opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. Its president said Tehran's exclusion meant the talks were unlikely to succeed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference saying the challenge of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis is "formidable," but that having the Syrian parties present raises hope.
The first two days of talks will give the delegations an opportunity to address the peace effort before the process shifts Friday to discussions between only the Syrian sides and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Mark Snowiss contributed to this report from Washington.