Blunders and stubborness hobble Syria talks
International efforts to bring peace to Syria after almost three years of war got under way in Switzerland this week with near-zero expectations of a breakthrough but slight hope of a deal on confidence-building measures and access for humanitarian aid to relieve the suffering of millions of ordinary people.
Prospects for progress depend on co-operation between the United States and Russia.
On Tuesday night the Kremlin revealed that presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had had a "businesslike and constructive" phone conversation about Syria. Their foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, are expected to meet in Montreux.
Agreement between the two countries on dismantling Syria's chemical weapons programme last September was one of the few diplomatic achievements of the crisis so far.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general who got off to a bad start on Monday when he was forced to withdraw a last-minute invitation to Iran, is chairing the peace conference — known as Geneva II even though it is taking place in nearby Montreux. Tight security arrangements were in place to protect Kerry, Lavrov, Britain's William Hague and dozens of other Western and Arab foreign ministers meeting at a lakeside hotel.
Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, will be meeting many of his counterparts for the first time since the bloodiest and longest crisis of the Arab Spring erupted in 2011.
Estimates of the death toll range from 100 000 to 130 000. Two million Syrians are now refugees and millions more are displaced and in need all over the war-torn country.
The Middle East has been destabilised by a conflict that has shaken one of the most authoritarian regimes in the region, but not brought it down, and has unleashed a vicious sectarianism.
Ban rescinded his invitation to Iran on the grounds that it had not publicly committed to the conference goal of agreeing to a transitional governing body for Syria by the mutual consent of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups fighting to overthrow him.
Iran is Assad's key regional ally but he also enjoys strong backing from Russia. The Syrian opposition, by contrast, enjoys wholehearted support only from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The US and other Western countries oppose Assad but are increasingly alarmed by the prominence of al-Qaeda-type groups in rebel ranks that have been accused of committing atrocities.
The US was unhappy at the prospect of Iranian participation, as was the main Western-backed rebel group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which threatened to boycott the talks unless Ban backed down. For several hours the conference teetered on the brink.
Iran blamed the US for the confusion. "We regret that Ban Ki-moon has withdrawn the invitation under pressure," the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said.
"It is also regretful that Mr Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons for the withdrawal."
The last-minute row seemed to symbolise the disarray in international responses to the 34-month crisis.
"Priceless to see US officials, who've blundered all along on Syria policy, mad at Ban Ki-moon's Iran blunder," said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Myopia/incompetence all around."
The point of Geneva II is to pick up where Geneva I, held in 2012, left off.
But there is no sign of readiness on the part of any of the Syrian parties to make substantive concessions. Assad has repeatedly said he will not step down and has spoken of standing for president again this year. Those opposition groups that are prepared to negotiate insist he must go and cannot play a role in any transition.
"We will not accept less than the removal of the criminal Bashar al-Assad and changing the regime and holding the murderers accountable," Badr Jamous, the SNC secretary general, said in Montreux. The majority of the armed groups in Syria, especially Islamist ones backed by the Saudis, oppose any talks. Western diplomats admit it is hard to see how the impasse between regime and opposition can be broken.
"We've felt the absence of any process since Geneva I,” said one senior official. "It is hard for the opposition because they are looking over their shoulders at the armed groups while atrocities and the terrible humanitarian situation continue." —© Guardian News & Media 2014