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Middle East

Scarce glimmers of hope as Syria talks continue

After a rocky start to the Syria peace conference in Switzerland, observers hope Friday's talks will be more successful. But both sides must still deal with many challenges before any progress is made.

It was a picture-perfect setting. The venue for the launch of the long-waited Geneva II talks on Syria overlooked the serene, shimmering Lake Geneva, its calm waters framed by snow-capped mountains. It seemed the ideal location to talk peace, but the view from the Montreux Convention Centre, where delegates had gathered to find a glimmer of hope for Syria's future, was not reflected in the bitter reality inside.

The morning began with a provocative speech by Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, which was so extreme in its rhetoric that even the usually mild-mannered UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon was forced to intervene to try to soften the tone.

The opposition delegation responded with another emotive speech, outlining the one indisputable fact - that neither side in this conflict could find any common ground. The main sticking point continues to be whether President Bashar al-Assad should stay in power. The Syrian government insists he should, but the opposition will not tolerate it. With an impossible gap to bridge, the long-awaited peace talks seemed doomed to fail as soon as they began.

Syrien peace conference Montreux Walid al-Muallim

Bitter rhetoric from both sides didn't get the talks off to a good start

'Rare flicker of hope'

But observers in Geneva believe there are some positives to be drawn from the initial gathering that can be carried over into next round of talks on Friday (24.01.2014). Shaheen Chughtai, a humanitarian policy adviser for the international aid agency Oxfam, said some degree of acrimony between opposing parties in this brutal conflict was inevitable.

"I think the early exchanges, where we saw a lot of criticism and finger-pointing from scripted speeches, was to be expected, but we really need now to move on very rapidly from that rhetoric and finger-pointing," he said. "The fact that this conference took place is an important achievement in itself. The sight of opposition leaders and government officials talking to each other offers a rare flicker of hope to millions of Syrians."

Syrian academic Yazan Abdallah, who travelled from Damascus to monitor the Geneva II peace process, believes a more constructive result could be achieved during Friday's face-to-face meetings, which will be chaired by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "I think this is the real thing," he said. "It will be easier to talk directly and get straight to the point. I am sure there will be many, many challenges. It's a track that is not very easy to establish. And even once it is established I am sure there will be many, many obstacles along the way. But I think if the international will exists, a solution could be reached."

Situation in Syria is urgent

A solution is becoming increasingly urgent, with a third of the Syrian population displaced by the conflict and more than 100,000 killed since the conflict began nearly three years ago. Some trapped within the country are even starting to face starvation. A recent report on alleged torture by the Syrian regime has horrified the international community. And humanitarian organizations have been frustrated by a lack of access to help ease the suffering of the civilian population. They are hoping the Geneva II talks will change that.

Syrians flee from a Syrian army attack in Aleppo

The situation in Syria, nearly three years after the start of the conflict, is becoming dire

"What we need to see are some positive results on the ground which are going to make a difference to people's lives as quickly as possible," said Oxfam's Chughtai. "What we're hoping from these very first steps is a much greater commitment from all sides to lift all restrictions to humanitarian access and a much greater emphasis on minimizing harm to civilians in the conflict. But this is just the beginning of a very long process. There will be delays and setbacks. So we need to be realistic about what we can expect, particularly in these first few days."

Expectations are still extremely low, but Brahimi has said Friday's talks will start by discussing smaller issues, which may be easier to resolve than the broader political picture. Those may include negotiations over local cease-fires, prisoner exchanges and access for aid. The political situation will be much harder to tackle, but it's vital if Syria is to find a solution to the crisis.

"There needs to be a political process that meets the aspirations of all Syrians," said Yazan Abdullah. "And I'm sure that can be achieved. There is a genuine realization of the size of the tragedy in Syria. Now we're talking about a peaceful political track which is endorsed by the international community."

'We need to involve all the players'

But Chughtai thinks little can be achieved without all the key political players and representatives of Syrian civil society present. "We also need - because there is a regional dimension to this conflict - all regional governments involved, sitting there in the room so they can constructively engage in the process. Including Iran."

On Friday morning the participants will move from the shores of Lake Geneva to the more formal environment of the UN's Palace of Nations in Geneva. Many may be hoping that a change of location could lead to a change in the bitter atmosphere seen at the start of the talks in Montreux earlier in the week.

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