The Syrian government and the opposition seeking its overthrow confronted each other face to face Wednesday for the first time since a national uprising began nearly three years ago.
The talks were widely expected to last months if not years. But there were two unexpected developments in the course of the day of speechmaking in this Swiss resort town that augured hope for a more rapid agreement.
First, there was a striking shift in tone by the Syrian government’s chief representative, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, from harsh and combative in his opening statement Wednesday morning to a measured and businesslike statement in final remarks in late afternoon.
Then, a short time later, Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed that the United States and Russia are working closely to find other ways to bring pressure for a solution and that that pressure includes increasing support to the rebels.
“There are still other possibilities of ways to be able to bring pressure and to try to work a solution” to the Syria crisis, he said. Kerry said he had spoken with Soviet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about this, and that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had “talked at some length about this.”
Following the talks, “they both instructed Foreign Minister Lavrov and me to continue our efforts, which we will do,” Kerry said.
“I can tell you this,” Kerry said. “What you see in the direct talks between the opposition and the Assad regime will not be the full measure of effort being expended in order to try to find a solution here.” He added, “Lots of avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition.”
Kerry also said that he expected the growing refugee problem in Jordan and the rise of terrorist groups in both Lebanon and Syria will “compel others to think in different ways about what the options may be as we go down the road.”
Another sign of a possible acceleration of efforts is that Moallem will head the Syrian delegation for the actual negotiations, which are to begin Friday in Geneva. Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters that Moallem is prepared to stay “not one or two or three sessions,” but for a long-term dialogue, “whatever it takes.”
Jaafari also said that Syria was ready to discuss every aspect of a U.N. action plan, which Moscow and Washington drafted in June 2012. It calls for creation of a transitional government, in charge of security and all other functions, members of which both the rebels and the Syrian government negotiators would have to agree on. But Jaafari said that the June 2012 statement was a “package,” and he pointed to its call for a nationwide cease-fire as an integral part of the package.
The fighting continued Wednesday in Syria, and activists in rebel-held areas reported 76 people were killed, including nine women and six children.
There had been hopes for a nationwide cease-fire to accompany the start of negotiations, but it appeared that even a local cease-fire was beyond the ability of the two sides to arrange. Jaafari noted at his news conference that the Syrian government had proposed a cease-fire in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, but he said the problem was on the side of the rebels.
He said Moallem had delivered the proposal to Lavrov, and Lavrov passed it on to Kerry. “After a while, he asked Kerry what happened,” Jaafari said. “He said Washington was still trying to get in touch with armed groups operating in Aleppo.”
U.S. officials had no immediate response to Jaafari’s assertion.
But humanitarian aid specialists said the Syrian offer was couched in terms that would have meant the disarming of rebel forces in Aleppo, where they control much of the city.
Rebel forces would have a major problem organizing a cease-fire in Aleppo, because there are at least four forces engaged there, several of which have indicated support for the negotiations in Geneva but two of which, both affiliated with al Qaida, have not. Those are the Nusra Front, which the United States has designated a terrorist group, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaida affiliate that is also fighting to control parts of Iraq’s Anbar province.
For those attending the daylong conference in the glittering resort town on Lake Geneva, the most lasting impression was the shift in tone by Moallem.
In his opening remarks, Moallem said no one has the right to withdraw the legitimacy from the current regime other than Syrians, and they will make their decision in a national referendum.
Moallem accused the Syrian opposition of “selling themselves to the highest bidder” and betraying their country, having sold themselves to Israel. In bitter, sometimes lurid language, he accused them of massive crimes, including rape, murder and even cannibalism. He urged the world to join his government in a fight against terrorism.
The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, spoke of children being executed by regime forces, of 200,000 “martyrs” in the course of the uprising, and 9 million residents forced into exile or internally displaced. He said the opposition would join the talks in hopes of achieving a “a full solution,” based on transferring all of Assad’s state authority to a transitional body.
But he also called on the government to halt the targeting of civilians and to withdraw all foreign forces, a reference to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But he asked: “Do we have such a partner” in the talks?
By late afternoon there was a different Moallem.
He deplored the speeches of most of the 40 countries represented that he said were full of “aspersions” that were “out of place” and did not “deserve a response.”
Then he added: “We want to put a stop to the bloodshed in Syria. We want to protect the lives of the people and rebuild the infrastructure in Syria. . . . That is why we are here. I want to express the hope that the Geneva conference will be a first step on the road to a dialogue on Syrian territory.”