Syria peace conference opens with rifts over Assad

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Syria’s government and its enemies came face to face for the first time on Wednesday at a one-day peace conference in Switzerland which world powers hope can at least start a process to end three years of civil war.
There was immediate evidence of sharp differences, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that President Bashar al-Assad must step down, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned against outsiders meddling in Syria’s affairs.
Syria’s foreign minister, speaking before the opposition, exchanged sharp words with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he spoke well beyond a 10-minute limit that Ban had set as chairman. Walid al-Moualem painted a graphic picture of “terrorist” rebel atrocities supported by states present in the room and insisted Assad would not be forced out by foreigners.
Ban had opened what will be a full day of speeches at Montreux on Lake Geneva from more than 40 delegations by citing human rights abuses by all the warring parties and calling for immediate access to humanitarian aid for areas under siege.
“After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of fragile but real hope,” Ban said, urging both sides to reach a comprehensive settlement based on the U.N. Geneva Communique, under which world powers called in 2012 for a transitional government to oversee change in Syria.
“Great challenges lie ahead but they are not insurmountable,” he added.
Western powers and Russia have sought to set aside their own sharp differences over whether Assad must be forced to make way for an interim administration and have backed the conference as a way to stop the spread of communal and sectarian violence spreading across the region.
The conference, which Ban hopes will be followed by further talks in Geneva, has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels on Syria’s frontlines who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even agreeing to be in the same room as Assad’s delegates.
Underlining the seemingly intractable positions, Syrian Foreign Minister Moualem had said on Tuesday that Assad’s position was non-negotiable. “The subject of the president and the regime is a red line for us and the Syrian people and will not be touched,” he was quoted as saying in Syrian media.

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