GENEVA — Syria’s government said stopping terrorism – not talking peace – was its priority, while the Western-backed opposition said “the road to negotiations” had begun, offering a glimmer of hope Thursday for a way to halt the violence that has killed more than 130,000 people.
The two sides did not meet face-to-face, buffered by a famously patient U.N. mediator who shuttled between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and members of the opposition trying to overthrow him. And they did not seem ready to do so Friday as originally scheduled.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem questioned both the point of the talks and the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles and lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion.
Infighting among rebels in the civil war has grown so deadly – nearly 1,400 killed in the past 20 days – that the head of al-Qaida called on Islamic militants to stand down, playing directly into Assad’s argument that only his government is preventing Syria’s further descent into chaos.
Al-Moallem, speaking before his meeting with mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, said his government’s priority was to “to fight terrorism.”
Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the head of the Syrian National Coalition derided the notion that Assad should stay in power to fight terrorists.
“Assad is responsible for the potential disintegration of Syria,” Kerry told the broadcaster Al-Arabiya. “He is a one-man super-magnet for terrorism.”
Both sides affirmed positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting. They blamed each other for turning a once-thriving country into ruins, and they called each other terrorists.
But their willingness to meet separately with Brahimi gave the first sense that the negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself said Wednesday they had shown willingness to bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires – even if the terms were still murky.
“The road to negotiations has begun,” opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba told reporters, even as he described Assad as “part of the past.” He said he had empowered negotiators to determine the time and scope for any talks.
The fighting that began in March 2011 with a peaceful uprising against Assad has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, with hints of a throwback to the Cold War as Russia and the United States back opposite sides.
Iran was conspicuously absent from the peace conference’s opening day, after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rescinded his last-minute invitation to the country that has supplied Assad with cash, weapons and Shiite fighters linked to Hezbollah.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was at another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he called for a new election in Syria and said his nation would respect the results.
“The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria” and once the ballots are cast, “we should all accept” the outcome, Rouhani said.
Badr Jamous, secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition, said the suggestion was nonsense.
“Where are we going to conduct such elections? In the Syrian camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey?” he said. “Or shall we look after the Syrian refugees in the boats sinking in the Mediterranean or in Europe or under the wreckage in Syria or in the cemeteries or in his prison?”
At one of the Turkish camps, Syrian refugees said nothing that happened in Switzerland would change their plight.
“Whether the opposition and the (Syrian) regime sit at the negotiating table makes no difference. The people of Syria have been left alone, and the international community is ignoring them,” said Mustafa Rejab, a refugee at the Kilis camp in southern Turkey.
Inside Syria, there was no letup in the deadly fighting that has allowed Assad to claim the upper hand in both military victories and morale – and put him in a new position of strength at the talks that were first floated in 2012 and then repeatedly stalled by both sides.
The opposition Thursday repeatedly emphasized Assad’s brutality and the difficulty of making peace with a man they said had destroyed Syria.
Representatives hand-picked by Assad were staying in Geneva’s Hotel de la Paix – or Peace Hotel. The opposition coalition held a briefing at the Intercontinental, where then-President Jimmy Carter met in 1977 with Assad’s father, Hafez, to discuss Mideast peace prospects.
Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the coalition who spent many years in Syrian prisons – including under Hafez Assad’s rule – said face-to-face talks were a distant goal.
“I looked at them and thought, ‘Are they really Syrians like me? How can they sit there and defend such a killer regime? How?’” he asked.