MONTREUX, Switzerland -- The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its opponents traded verbal barbs Wednesday as a long-awaited Syrian peace conference opened in this Swiss lakeside city under the auspices of the United Nations.
Representatives of more than 30 nations gathered at the glitzy resort town along Lake Geneva in the most ambitious international effort yet to end an almost 3-year-old conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives, forced millions from their homes and sown instability throughout the Middle East.
As a brilliant morning sun glistened on snow-capped Alpine peaks, delegates embarked on a lengthy round of speeches that served to highlight the deep divisions inherent in the Syrian crisis -- and the many barriers to crafting a cease-fire and political solution. Bitter exchanges soon emerged from the antagonistic camps, a direct reflection of the fierce hostilities fueling the Syrian war.
The opposing sides in the conflict openly assailed the motivations of their adversaries. The Syrian government representative depicted its enemies as traitors and foreign-backed provocateurs, while the Syrian opposition delegate labeled Assad -- who was not present here -- a war criminal who must cede power.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry reiterated the Obama administration’s position that Assad is obliged to step down as part of any transitional Syrian administration that emerges from the nascent peace process.
“There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern,” Kerry said.
But the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, declared that no one had the right to “withdraw the legitimacy” of the government in Damascus except the people of Syria.
He accused some nations present at the conference of fomenting terrorism inside Syria and having “Syrian blood on their hands,” a clear reference to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States and other nations that have supported the armed opposition.
Moallem also derided exiled opposition leaders “living in five-star hotels” while “our people were being slaughtered.”
Syria’s top diplomat also had a testy exchange with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who sought to cut off Moallem after the Syrian official exceeded a 10-minute limit on speakers.
“You live in New York, I live in Syria,” Moallem chided Ban. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.”
The Syrian opposition representative, Ahmad Jabra, accused the government of spreading terrorism in the country. Jabra represents the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, which has limited support on the ground inside Syria.
The opposition leader invoked comparisons to Nazi atrocities during World War II while referring to recently published photos of detainees allegedly tortured and murdered in Syrian custody. The Syrian government has disputed the authenticity of the images.
Syrian government and opposition leaders are scheduled to meet face to face when the conference resumes Friday in Geneva. Wednesday’s session was designed largely as a ceremonial forum for speeches. However, the often-polemical tone of the day’s oratory underscored the difficult path to any form of reconciliation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conceded that the talks “will not be simple, will not be quick,” but labeled the occasion “a historic responsibility.” He called on foreign powers not to “meddle” in Syria’s internal affairs -- though the conflict in Syria is widely viewed as a proxy war involving external powers, with Russia and Iran backing Assad and the United States and its allies supporting the opposition.
Washington and Moscow were key players in putting together the Syrian peace conference. Before the conference convened, the U.N. withdrew an invitation to Iran amid intense U.S. pressure.
In his address, Ban chided the Syrian government, suggesting that the conflict could have been avoided if citizens’ early demands for change had been heeded.
“If the government leaders had listened more attentively and humbly to the concerns expressed by the people, this conference might not have been necessary,” the U.N. chief said. “The disaster is now all encompassing.”
Still, Ban called the conference, some eight months in the making, a moment “of fragile but real hope.”