Syrian 'enemies' to meet for the first time
Syria’s government and opposition will discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid.
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MONTREUX, Switzerland - Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility on Wednesday 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 on Friday despite fears that a standoff 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 in the lakeside city of Montreux, 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 on Wednesday, 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 on Wednesday, urged Assad's opponents and their foreign backers not to focus exclusively on leadership change.
Wednesday'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.
US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urging an interim coalition. But Lavrov said all sides had a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012 pact.
Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'ite Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran, locked in a sectarian confrontation across the region, was absent, shunned by the opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government.
The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even taking part.
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, condemning human rights abuses across the board.
But there was little sign of compromise on the central issue of whether Assad, who inherited power from his father 14 years ago, should make way for a government of national unity.
Lavrov repeated Moscow's opposition to "outside players" interfering in Syria's sovereign affairs and prejudging the outcome of talks on forming an interim government. He also said Iran - Assad's main foreign backer - should have a say.
Despite the differences, however, some participants believe common interests in reining in violence could rally the West, Russia and possibly even Iran behind some form of compromise.
A last-minute invitation from Ban to Iran was revoked after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks - a move that threatened to undermine months of US and Western efforts to cajole Jarba's National Coalition into taking part.
President Hassan Rouhani said from Tehran that Iran's exclusion made it unlikely the conference could succeed.
WAR RAGES IN SYRIA
During the speeches in Montreux, the war went on in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported clashes and air strikes around the country. Around Damascus, government artillery hit villages and rebels clashed with the army in the neighbourhood of Jobar on the northeast fringe of the capital, it said.
The release of photographs apparently showing prisoners tortured and killed by the government was cited by Jarba and Western ministers. The Syrian government rejected the report as not objective and aimed at undermining negotiations.
In Damascus, where life limps on amid bombardments and checkpoints, weary residents cautiously hope for better.