Last updated: January 22, 2014 6:49 pm

Disagreement over future role for Assad

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John Kerry, Ban Ki-moon, Sergey Lavrov, Lakhdar Brahimi...From left: UN-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, United States Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov join hands after their international conference on ending the crisis in Syria in Montreux, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Syria's main political opposition group in exile agreed on Saturday to attend internationally sponsored peace talks, and said for the first time three rebel fighting forces also wanted to take part. (AP Photo/Gary Cameron, Pool)©AP

From left: Lakhdar Brahimi, UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, John Kerry, US secretary of state, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general and Sergey Lavrov , Russian foreign minister, in Montreux

Sharp disagreements over the future of President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday coloured the opening day of a long-planned peace conference meant to end Syria’s civil war.

Western leaders and representatives of the Syrian opposition adamantly rejected any future role for Mr Assad. His forces opened fire for months on a peaceful uprising against his family’s four-decade rule, helping to ignite a civil war that has dragged on for nearly three years.

In depth

Syria crisis

The US and Russia have been pushing to bring the Syrian government and opposition to the table to spark a diplomatic process to end the war

“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,” John Kerry, the US secretary of State, said at the beginning of the summit in the lakeside Swiss town of Montreux. “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. It is hard to imagine how that consent could be forthcoming at this point in time.”

The summit, dubbed Geneva 2 as a long-delayed follow-up to a 2012 Syria peace conference, opened amid low expectations. The previous meeting produced the so-called Geneva communiqué, which calls for the establishment of a transitional authority with full executive powers agreed by mutual consent.

However, even the US and Russia, who are sponsoring the talks, remain sharply divided over what this means for Syria.

“It is not at all clear that the US and Russia have a common view of what a political transition means for Syria,” said Fred Hof, a former senior US State department official who worked on Syria.

The continued disagreements with Russia present a major dilemma for the Obama administration, which has been trying to find enough common ground with Russia to push forward a diplomatic solution.

But few believe diplomacy could end a civil war in which Syria’s array of rebel fighting groups and the regime and its allies appear determined to win on the battlefield. At least 130,000 Syrians have been killed and an estimated 9m displaced.

The World blog

Gideon Rachman's blog

Anyone who thought references to the Assads’ ‘killing machine’ in Syria’s civil war was a hyperbolic metaphor should read a report that details the ‘industrial scale’ killing of about 11,000 detainees in the regime’s dungeons . . . 

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Passions aroused by the war even spilled out into the streets of the upscale resort where the first day of the conference took place, with video apparently showing pro-regime protesters clubbing screaming anti-Assad activists as nervous police officers looked on.

US officials nonetheless argue that bringing the Syrian government and opposition together could start a long-term diplomatic process to end the war.

The build-up to the conference was overshadowed by disagreements between the west and its Arab allies, and the UN and Russia over whether to invite Iran to the conference as well as the release of a report by respected lawyers that claimed to document industrial-scale torture and killing by the Syrian regime.

Adding a further unexpected layer of complication to the proceedings, Syria’s independence-minded Kurdish minority, denied a separate seat at the conference, solidified its claim to an autonomous region in the country’s northwest. It named a regional government of “Rojava”, which encompasses Hasaka province and the city of Qamishli.

Western officials quickly batted away attempts by the Syrian regime’s to portray itself as a bastion of secularism fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, which is how Mr Assad describes rebels fighting him.

“As we hear talk about terrorism today, make no mistake, it is the presence of the current intransigence within the existing government that makes this problem worse,” Mr Kerry said. “That is creating a magnet for terrorism. Until a transition takes place, there is no prayer of reducing the increase of terrorism.”

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, hit back, saying that “no one has the right to withdraw the legitimacy from a president, or government, or law in Syria, except the Syrian people”. He rejected claims that the Syrian regime was the author of the civil war, and instead sought to paint the conflict as the result of terrorism “exported by other countries”.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, said he was “surprised and disappointed” that the Syrian officials focused on terrorism instead of creating a transition away from the rule of the Assad clan. “The main course and purpose of this high level conference would be to discuss how to implement the Geneva communiqué,” he said.

In an emotional address, Ahmed Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told delegates: “We have become a people of martyrs burying their own martyrs . . . Syrians are all victims of one man[’s efforts] just to remain on his throne. We are here to work for a transition.”

Despite the differences, western diplomats and opposition activists expected talks between the regime and its opponents to start in Geneva on Friday. They will be mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy of the UN and Arab League on Syria. Mr Brahimi said that he would meet separately with the two camps tomorrow to discuss next steps. However, it was not yet clear whether the two groups will be present in the same room. The opposition team consists of politicians and specialists as well as 15 representatives of armed groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

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