MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — Syrian peace talks began Wednesday in Switzerland with a bitter clash over President Bashar Assad’s future.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad’s decision to meet peaceful dissent with brutal force had robbed him of all legitimacy while Assad’s foreign minister declared that no one outside Syria had the right to remove the government. The Syrian opposition said the whole point of the peace conference was to create a transitional government without Assad.
Less than three hours into peace talks that have been on the verge of collapse since they were first floated, the two sides seemed impossibly far apart.
“We really need to deal with reality,” Kerry said. “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. One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage.”
“The right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles. It comes from the consent of the people,” he added.
Kerry was followed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who refused to give up the podium despite repeated requests from the U.N. secretary-general.
“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” he angrily told 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.”
Al-Moallem said no one except Syrians could remove Assad. He also accused the West and neighboring countries — notably Saudi Arabia, which he did not name — of funneling money, weapons and foreign fighters to the rebellion.
“The West claims to fight terrorism publically while they feed it secretly,” he said. “Syrians here in this hall participated in all what has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent.”
At least 100,000 people — and activists claim tens of thousands more — have been killing in the fighting that began with a peaceful uprising in March 2011 against Assad’s rule. The fighting has forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes.
The question of Assad’s future goes to the heart of the peace conference with the stated goal of a transitional government for Syria. Notably absent was Iran, which along with Russia has been Assad’s most forceful supporter.
Ban invited, then disinvited Iran at the last minute, after the Syrian opposition threatened to back out of the peace talks less than 48 hours before their scheduled start.
Amhad al-Jarba, the head of Syria’s Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said Wednesday that any discussion of Assad’s continued hold on power would effectively end the talks before they have begun in earnest.
Al-Jarba said a transitional government “is the only topic for us.”
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