Peace Conference On Syria Opens In Switzerland

The Syrian peace conference is underway as diplomats make public statements filled with accusations and acrimony. The civil war has gone on nearly three years — killing more than 130,000 people and displacing some 9 million others. Much of the fight hinges on whether Syrian President Bashar Assad should remain power.

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Let's go next to Switzerland, where the Syrian peace conference began this morning, with diplomats making public statements filled with accusations and acrimony - just how you'd want to start a peace conference. The civil war has gone on for almost three years now, killing well over 130,000 people and displacing some nine million others. Much of the fight hinges on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should remain in power. Let's go now to NPR's Deborah Amos, who's covering the talks. Deborah's on the line. Hi, Deborah.


INSKEEP: OK. So, we talked about, just a moment ago, about the rather harsh speeches. Secretary of State John Kerry made a strongly worded statement.

AMOS: He did. You know, this was a day of competing narratives, and here's where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took it: to the beginning of the rebellion. He said it wasn't armed. It started out with boys in Daraa, which is a town in southern Syria. They were armed only with graffiti cams, and when their parents came to protest, 120 people died. Now, we have 130,000 dead, he said, who've been killed by barrel bombs and scuds. Starvation is used as a weapon of war. He indicted to Assad regime for this kind of violence.

INSKEEP: Meaning that he said that there's absolutely no way that Assad can remain in power, can personally remain in power, that he can have legitimacy after being responsible for such brutality. But, of course, the Syrian foreign minister was pretty harsh, as well, and maybe beyond harsh.

AMOS: That was the most explosive moment this morning. He dramatically repeated the regime's narrative, that this is war on terrorism. But he went on to call out Turkey. He said the Turks have blood on their hands, because they are responsible for arming these terrorists. He said that we don't want to go back 1,000 years with these medieval ideologies that come from Saudi Arabia. He sparred a bit with U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon, who tried to cut him off, but Moualem would have none of it. And he said the opposition had sold themselves to Israel. He called them traitors. He said the Israelis helped them militarily. He said they all stay in five-star hotels while Syria is burning. It was a real stem-winder, which will be wildly popular with the Syrian regime's base back in Syria.

INSKEEP: Maybe not so popular with the opposition in Syria.

AMOS: Not at all. And it was interesting to listen to Ahmad Jarba, who is the head of the delegation of the opposition. He asked a simple question: Who do you believe? And do we have a Syrian partner in this room? He said that the only thing we are here to talk about is a transitional government. We need a state that accepts diversity. And what he said is we're against terrorism, too, but he accused the regime of facilitating terrorism, not just by helping out al-Qaida. He also pointed out that Hezbollah militias from Lebanon have come to support the regime, and militias from Iraq have come to support the regime. So, we heard everybody's maximalist positions today at a day of speeches. Now, the big business happens on Friday, when the two delegations sit face to face.

INSKEEP: Well, now, you said everybody maximalist position, which implies that maybe they're actually just negotiating, here, rather than posturing. Is there behind the scenes, behind the words, some sense of some common ground here?

AMOS: No, there's not.


INSKEEP: Well, that settles that.

AMOS: And you could actually see that with the two sponsors of this conference: the United States and Russia. They, too, had diverging opinions about the narrative of the Syrian crisis. So, there is a lot of work to do to salvage these negotiations. Ban Ki-moon talks about them as a train. Can we get them on the track? Never mind if they move an inch, but getting them on the track is the goal.

INSKEEP: And they don't - there's no shape - in just about 10 seconds - is there a shape of any smaller scale, or temporary agreement that could be reached?

AMOS: Ceasefires, possibly, some opening for humanitarian access. Those talks are going on simultaneously.

INSKEEP: OK, Deb. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. She is covering the opening of peace talks for Syria today.

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