Syria Peace Talks Stumble at Start

Divisions over the future of strongman Bashar Assad quickly come to the fore

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Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Secretary of State John Kerry listens to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prior to peace talks in Montreux, Jan. 22, 2014.

Peace talks to end the almost-three-year civil war in Syria began Wednesday on a bitter and divisive note, with the top American diplomat ruling out any possibility that President Bashar Assad could stay in power while Syria accused Arab nations of financing terrorism.

The major players at the talks in Switzerland, including the United States, the Syrian government, Russia and the Syrian opposition, expressed sharp disagreements on issues ranging from Assad’s future to Iran’s exclusion from the conference, the New York Times reports. Secretary of State John Kerry took a firm stand as the gathering opened, saying Assad could play no role in a transitional government after the brutal treatment of Syrian civilians.

“We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent,” Kerry said. “That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government.

“The right to lead a country does not come from torture,” he added.

Kerry’s comments came shortly after shocking accusations of systematic torture on the part of the Assad regime. The Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Assi al-Jarba also said Assad could not be part of a transition government. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused Arab nations of funding terrorist rebel groups in Syria in a half-hour screed, as United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-Moon tried unsuccessfully to keep the delegate to speak only for the allotted seven minutes, the Times reports.

The start of the talks was accompanied by renewed clashes in the suburbs of Damascus and in other parts of Syria, the Associated Press reports.

Disputes also arose over whether Iran, which supports Assad, should be included in the talks after the United Nations withdrew an invitation to the at the request of the United States. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov argued for Iran’s inclusion, and he challenged Kerry’s insistence that Assad be excluded form a possible transitional administration.