Table's Laid And Guests Are Ready: Syria Peace Talks Set To Begin

A peace conference on Syria is due to begin Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland. The start of the conference comes after more than three years of violent conflict and 24 hours of uncertainty over Iran's surprise invitation. But the invitation has been withdrawn, and the diplomats are set to assume their places at the negotiating table.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The Syrian peace conference begins tomorrow following a tumultuous 24 hours. Yesterday, at the last minute, the U.N. withdrew Iran's invitation after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the meeting. The aim of the talks: to end a three-year war that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.

But the war is no longer just about Syria. It's become a regional conflict, which makes finding a solution all the more complicated. NPR's Deborah Amos reports now from the Swiss city of Montreux.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The U.S., Russia and the U.N. spend enormous political capital just getting the warring sides to the table, but no one is expecting quick results, says Salman Shaikh at the Brookings Center in Doha.

SALMAN SHAIKH: They expect some sort of a process to start, or at least they're hoping for that. I think that fair amounts of gloom, though, that they will be able to achieve really anything.

AMOS: The Syrian government and regime opponents haven't achieved much either. President Bashar al-Assad's aim was to crush a revolt that began as a peaceful uprising. Armed rebels vowed to oust him by force. Now, both sides must recalculate. At least that's the hope, says Shashank Joshi, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

SHASHANK JOSHI: In some ways, maybe we should think of it as a kind of getting to know you, as a kind of sounding out to decide, you know, what are the parameters of the possible here? What can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example?

AMOS: The Syrian regime offered limited humanitarian access in the days leading up to these talks in rebel neighborhoods besieged by regime troops for months. The state TV showed government cleanup crews and food delivery in areas where civilians have died from lack of food and medicine. Syria's foreign minister proposed a wider cease fire for the contested city of Aleppo. All part of a negotiating strategy, says Joshi.

JOSHI: It's a question of projecting their bargaining position, of showing they have a good hand, of showing that they have facts on the ground that cannot be reversed by a squabbling infighting rebellion.

AMOS: And it demonstrates the regime's bottom line, he says. President Assad holds the key to the most urgent issues.

JOSHI: If you want political change in Syria and you want to be able to enforce a peace, it's the regime that you have to talk to and agree with.

AMOS: The international agenda for the talks negotiate a caretaker government appointed by mutual consent, a tall order for parties so far apart and the Syrian president says he has no intention of stepping down. Salman Shaikh says it's likely the regime and the Russians will try to press an alternative agenda.

SHAIKH: For the Russians and for the Assad regime, this conference is now very much more about fighting terrorism. This is very much more about dispelling the notion that Assad has to leave. It provides an arena for his rehabilitation.

AMOS: A year ago, many Western officials were predicting Assad's impending fall and an end to the fighting, almost no one thinks that way now. The U.S. and Russia need the Syrian president's cooperation for the talks here to succeed. Publically, Western officials say he must step aside, but privately, it seems, they're more interested in constraining Assad than removing him at least for now.

Syrian opposition leaders only reluctantly agreed to these talks. They fear their weak position will undermine what little legitimacy they have left with Syrians who believed in the revolution and lost everything in a war, says Amir Azam, a Syrian-born U.S. academic with close ties to the opposition.

AMIR AZAM: It's going to be a photo-op. It's just going to be a get-together for the international community to come and say, OK, we're doing something for the Syrian crisis, when really nothing is going to be done - this first meeting, at least.

AMOS: With the opposition divided, the regime convinced it has won, there's no guarantee that talks will continue past the first meeting. Meanwhile, inside Syria, there is no let up in the fighting and the humanitarian crisis only deepens.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Montreux.

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