Civilians carry signs during a campaign organised by activists in the besieged area of Homs yesterday. The sign on right reads: ‘591 days of siege’.
MONTREUX: Syria’s government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility yesterday but a UN mediator said the enemies may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid.
Russia said the rival sides had promised to start direct talks tomorrow despite fears that a stand-off over President Bashar Al Assad’s fate would halt the push for a political solution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed over 130,000 and made millions homeless.
Even if the sides are willing to discuss limited confidence-building measures, expectations for the peace process remain low, with Islamist rebels and Assad ally Iran absent and a solution to the three-year war still far off.
Western officials were taken aback by the combative tone of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem at the one-day a UN peace conference in Switzerland, fearing follow-up negotiations would never get off the ground due to the acrimony.
But after a day of bitter speeches, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi signalled that both sides were ready to move beyond rhetoric. “We have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, the liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires,” he told a news conference.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had urged Damascus to release detainees as a confidence-building measure and appealed to both sides. “Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate,” he told reporters.
Russia, which co-sponsored the Montreux meeting with the United States, said the rival Syrian delegations had promised to sit down on January 24 for talks which were expected to last about seven days.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the recriminations yesterday, when the opposition called for Assad to hand over power — a demand dismissed by Moualem, who in turn graphically described atrocities by “terrorist” rebels.
“As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional statements, they blamed one another,” Lavrov told reporters. However, he added: “For the first time in three years of the bloody conflict ... the sides - for all their accusations — agreed to sit down at the negotiating table.”
Lavrov, who met Moualem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba, urged Assad’s opponents and their foreign backers not to focus only on leadership change.
Yesterday’s meeting exposed sharp differences on forcing out Assad, both between the government and opposition, and among the foreign powers which fear that the conflict is spilling beyond Syria and encouraging sectarian militancy abroad.
Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation sign up to an international plan for handing over power. Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands, denouncing atrocities committed by rebels supported by the Arab and Western states whose delegations were sitting in the conference room.
Moualem called on foreign powers to stop “supporting terrorism” and to lift sanctions against Damascus.
Referring to rebel acts, he said: “In Syria, the wombs of pregnant women are cut open, the foetuses are killed. Women are raped, dead or alive ... Men are slaughtered in front of their children in the name of the revolution.”
He insisted Assad’s future was not in question, saying: “Nobody in this world has a right to withdraw legitimacy from a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves.”
Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shia Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Tehran could play a role in a solution. “Iran certainly does have an ability to be helpful and make a difference,” he told reporters.
UN chief Ban opened proceedings by calling for immediate access for humanitarian aid convoys to areas under siege. “Great challenges lie ahead but they are not insurmountable,” Ban said.