Peace talks intended to carve a path out of Syria's civil war got off to a rocky start yesterday as a bitter clash over President Bashar al-Assad's future threatened to collapse the negotiations even before they had really begun.
The United States and the Syrian opposition opened the conference by saying the Syrian leader had lost his legitimacy when he crushed a once-peaceful protest movement. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem countered that terrorists and foreign meddling had ripped his country apart. He refused to give up the podium despite requests.
"You live in New York. I live in Syria," he angrily told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."
Less than three hours into the peace talks in the Swiss city of Montreux, the two sides seemed impossibly far apart. US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said all sides must have a role and criticised "one-sided interpretations" of that 2012 pact.
Syrian opposition leader Amhad al-Jarba, of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the point of the conference was to create a transitional government without Assad.
Muallem insisted that no one except Syrians could remove Assad. He also accused the West and neighbouring countries of funnelling money, weapons and foreign fighters to the rebellion.
"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," he said. "Syrians here in this hall participated in all that has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent."
Associated Press, Reuters