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Assad's Future Sparks Sharp Debate at Syrian Peace Conference

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, join hands after their tri-lateral meeting on ending the crisis in Syria in Montreux, Switzerland, Jan. 21, 2014.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's political future has been a divisive issue as delegations from more than 30 countries, the United Nations and Syria's warring sides meet for a long-awaited peace conference in Switzerland.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized the Syrian government Wednesday, saying the country's crisis began as soldiers used "increasing force" against peaceful demonstrations. He said that because the government and opposition differ on Assad's fate, the Syrian leader cannot be a part of a mutually agreed transitional government.

"There is no way, no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” said Kerry.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Kerry that only Syrians have the right to choose their president, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his country's stance that other nations should not have a say in Syria's affairs.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference in Montreux by saying that while the challenge of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis is "formidable," having the Syrian parties present raises hope.

The idea for the conference first emerged in May of last year, and Ban said the eight months since then have been an "extremely difficult path" with valuable time and many lives lost.

Wednesday’s meeting will give the various national delegations present an opportunity to address the peace effort before the process shifts to Geneva on Friday, where talks will take place between only the Syrian sides and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Ban said the second phase of negotiations is the chance for the two sides to "save Syria." He also called on both sides to end all violence, including terrorist attacks and allow full humanitarian access. The U.N. chief said all sides in the conflict have shown a total disregard for their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law.

Kerry also stressed the importance of what he said was the beginning of complicated negotiations.

“We have not only an opportunity but we have an obligation to find a way forward so that the people of Syria can choose their leadership, know peace, and for 9 million refugees, finally be able to return home in dignity,” said Kerry.

The United States and Russia have led the effort to organize the talks on the basis of an agreement reached at a 2012 conference to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. The document contains a series of steps, including the negotiated transitional government, a ceasefire and a commitment to allow full humanitarian access.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests before spiraling into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and forced nearly 9 million from their homes.