Heightened tensions and the vast divide between opposing sides in the Syrian war were already on show in the opening statements of the Geneva II peace talks, which started in Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday morning.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Washington’s position that President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of any transitional government, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem accused Western countries of having Syrian blood on their hands, according to media reports.
During the opening session of the Geneva II conference on the Syria crisis, Muallem expressed the view that some of the countries attending the peace talks are actually promoting terrorism in Syria.
“These countries were exporting terrorism, as well as tools of murder, as if God delegated them the right to decide who to kill and who to help,” the Syrian foreign minister said in his address to the delegations at the talks.
Muallem also described the foreign-sponsored opposition elements participating in the long-awaited international meeting as “traitors” and foreign “agents.”
“They claim to represent the Syrian people. If you want to speak in the name of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people, agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people,” he stated.
The top Syrian diplomat said that the Syrian people are the only ones who can decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, directly addressing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had again insisted during his speech that President Assad has lost his legitimacy.
“Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to confer or withdraw the legitimacy of a president, a constitution, or a law, except for the Syrians themselves,” Muallem opined.
The Syrian foreign minister also called on foreign powers to stop “supporting terrorism,” and to lift the sanctions imposed on the Syrian government.
He accused some neighboring countries of backstabbing Syria, adding that terrorism would not remain in Syria but would spill over and spread across the region.
Muallem also thanked Russia, Iran, and China for supporting the “sovereignty” of Syria.
Muallem vs. Ban in verbal sparring match
The bell ran five times during Muallem’s speech at the opening session of the Syrian peace conference, signaling he had exceeded the time limit. But Muallem refused to stop, setting off a tense exchange with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, AP reported.
Here’s the exchange:
Ban: Can you just wrap up please.
Al-Muallem: I came here after 12 hours in the airplane, I have a few more minutes to end my speech. This is Syria.
Ban: How much do you have left now?
Muallem: I think 5 to 10 minutes.
Ban: No, no. I will give you another opportunity to speak.
Muallem: No, I cannot divide my speech. I must continue… I will do my best to be fast.
Ban: Can you just wrap up in one or two minutes?
Muallem: No, I can’t promise you, I must finish my speech… You live in New York, I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.
Ban: We have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue, please refrain from inflammatory rhetoric.
Muallem: It is constructive, I promise you, let me finish.
Ban: Within 2 to 3 minutes please, I will give you another opportunity.
Muallem: You spoke for 25 minutes, at least I need to speak 30 minutes.
A few minutes later, Ban interrupts again. Muallem says he has one sentence left, to which Ban asks him to keep his promise.
“Syria always keeps its promises,” Muallem replied, triggering approving laughter from the Syrian government delegation behind him and a wry grin from Ban.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was the main task of the Syria peace conference “to achieve an end to the tragic conflict” and prevent a spillover to other countries in the region.
Lavrov, in his opening remarks, called on “external players” not to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs. He said the internal political opposition should be part of a Syrian national dialogue, and that Iran, which is not present at the talks, should be part of the international dialogue.
Many of the more than 40 government representatives echoed concerns about the human cost of the war and the dangers of escalation posed by heavily armed international militants.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the conference, noting to its participants that “in case negotiations fail, thousands of Syrians will pay the price and Syria’s future will be at stake.”
China, which has usually kept quiet on the subject, issued a statement on Monday calling for a Syrian solution to the conflict.
“The political transition process in Syria must be Syrian-led, and the future of Syria, ultimately, can only be decided by the Syrian people themselves,” the statement read.
No direct talks between government and opposition delegations are expected until Friday, when opposition and governmental delegations will meet in Geneva for negotiations that officials have said could last seven to ten days.
The talks reflect mounting global concern that a war which has killed over 130,000 people and left millions homeless is spilling beyond Syria and fueling sectarian militancy abroad. But there was little sign that any party was ready to make concessions.
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