Jan 22 7:00 AM

Will the Geneva II talks lead to peace in Syria?

Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Geneva II conference.

Foreign Ministers and negotiators from some 30 nations gathered on Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux in the hopes of developing a plan to bring peace to Syria. Yet right from the start, the hard lines of division between many of the participants cast doubt on the success of the meeting.

In addressing the Geneva II conference, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem defended the government of President Bashar al-Assad. "The Syrian people aspire to have a strong army that protects their assets and land and ethnicities and that defends the borders of the homeland and its sovereignty and independence."

Representing the Assad government, Muallem denounced the proceedings and the participants, saying, "No one in the world has the right to give or take legitimacy to a president or government or constitution or law or anything in Syria, except for the Syrians themselves." In a 25-minute tirade, the foreign minister declared that whatever decision the gathering arrives at, it is up to the approval of the Syrian people through a referendum. 

Muallem held the government's line, insisting that Assad will remain in power as long as Syrians want him to: "We are here to present what the people want and not to decide their fate." Calling the forces fighting his government "terrorists," the Syrian foreign minister infuriated conference participants by speaking at length despite admonitions to stop.

The Syrian opposition, in the form of the Syrian National Coalition, also held its ground. Opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba said, "Any talk of Assad staying in power in any form will be a derailment of the Geneva I path, so we insist that we are not in any position to discuss anything in the negotiations before these issues are decided upon within a specific time frame."

From the outset of the talks, organized with diplomatic muscle from the United States and Russia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear there would be no wiggle room: Assad must go. Kerry told the delegation that "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." 

Even among the organizers there were challenges. The Russians, long supporters of the Assad regime, suggested there was a role for his government in any kind of transition. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked the delegation to "refrain and restrain the parties from attempts to predetermine the agreements, and other steps that could disrupt the talks."

Lavrov suggested that Syria's regional ally Iran should participate in the talks. Absent from the Montreux gathering after his country's invitation was rescinded at the last minute, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed little hopes in the talks: "The overall signs do not give me much hope that this meeting can be successful."

Overshadowing the meeting in Switzerland was the publication this week of a large cache of videos and photographs that are purported to be evidence of the Syrian regime's torture and murder of rebel captives. These pictures, reportedly smuggled out of Syria by a former policeman, were released by lawyers hired by the government of Qatar, an opponent of the Assad government.

Whether or not these talks will result in the creation of leadership transition for Syria remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the nearly three-year war goes on. Rebels and government forces clashed today in and around Damascus, the Syrian capital.

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