GWEN IFILL: As the Syrian peace talks in Switzerland took a break today to move from Montreux to Geneva, the supporting drama continued with more heated rhetoric from the opposition and from government representatives.
And, as Hari Sreenivasan reports, some are wondering whether the two sides will even keep their plans to meet tomorrow.
HARI SREENIVASAN: U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately today with the Syrian government’s delegation and the opposition in the wake of yesterday’s tense formal opening session.
QUESTION: Are you confident of being able to …
LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N. Envoy to Syria: I’m not speaking.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He declined to comment on his conversations or about prospects for face-to-face talks that the two sides are supposed to hold tomorrow.
Ahmad Al-Jarba, head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, reiterated again today that Syrian President Bashar-al Assad must go.
AHMAD AL-JARBA, president, Syrian National Council (through translator): It’s clear to us and to you that the regime is dead. I think that the world is convinced today that Assad is not staying and will not stay in power.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The Syrian government has repeatedly pushed back at that idea. And, today, the country’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said the Assad government’s priority is to focus on fighting terrorism in Syria, not to discuss peace. And he dismissed the Syrian National Coalition as not representative of the opposition.
Indeed, many of the civilian opposition groups refused to come, and none of the fighting forces, secular or Islamist, sent representatives. Instead, they have been fighting among themselves. Today, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri released an audio message urging the Islamists to unite.
Meanwhile, the president of Iran called for elections to decide Syria’s future. Hassan Rouhani addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after his country was barred from yesterday’s peace talks.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through translator): We must pave the wave for the opposition and the government to sit at the table of negotiations and dialogue. The best solution is a free election in Syria. We must all respect whatever the people vote for.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Iran’s support has helped President Assad’s forces make important military gains in recent months. Perhaps with that in mind, Secretary of State John Kerry said today it’s obvious that, for now, Assad is not ready to step down.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in Geneva.
So, Margaret, given all that happened yesterday, are these two sides likely to meet face-to-face tomorrow?
MARGARET WARNER: They are, Hari, and we have been told that, today, Brahimi had meetings — that is Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy — with both sides, and they have agreed on an M.O. for tomorrow.
They will meet at the Palais des Nations right here and they will start in the same room. And Brahimi will propose to them what he is thinking of. They will speak through each person’s, each side’s representative to Brahimi, not to one another. Great care has been taken to make sure that nothing explodes, you don’t have a situation like yesterday.
Then, once that’s happened, they will each retire to different rooms. And from then, the question is, will that then amount to turning to shuttle diplomacy, with Brahimi going from room to room, or will they return and again in this very structured way exchange ideas through Brahimi?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Even though they are in the same room, they are going to speak through Brahimi.
How much did what happened yesterday and how much could it impact the rest of this conversation?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, interestingly, Hari, the opposition, which had to really be pressured to even come here by the West and its backers, comes out of the meeting in Montreux, with a little bit of wind in its sails.
And the belief is among apparently Syrians in Syria and certainly among many of the world powers that Jarba, the leader of the Syrian opposition, who is really a neophyte to the international stage, did better than Foreign Minister Moallem, just in terms of style.
That is, as we discussed yesterday, Foreign Minister Moallem was very histrionic, very aggressive in his language, very sort of bloody and violent in his terminology, and never talked about the future that they see, and that Jarba, while he also had a litany of grievances, did actually speak to the Syrian people about the kind of inclusive Syria he hoped to see.
So, that said, the Western backers of the opposition have said to him, all right, you don’t represent all of the Syrian people, as you well know. Now is the time to try to capitalize on this little bit of a boost you have given yourself by not rising to the bait of Moallem’s comments yesterday and try to expand your circle.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about that reservation that we have talked about that not all the people who are fighting on the ground in the opposition are actually represented in the room?
MARGARET WARNER: In fact, none of those really fighting on the ground are even in the room.
And that has to do with a lot of the complicated politics of the fighting forces at the moment, where, as we have explained — as you explained in the setup, they’re fighting a two-front war. So they have no fighting forces here. Some of the civilian groups declined to come. And so that is an Achilles’ heel for the Syrian opposition coalition, absolutely.
And this is why it is very, very important not to prove — for them not to prove the Syrian government right, and to actually be able to in a month or two claim to speak for a broader representation of the Syrian — all the factions that are contending there.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about if the foreign minister of Syria says this is only to talk about fighting terrorism, not about Bashar al-Assad stepping down? What if that is the limit of what he wants to talk about?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, you are right. He has repeated that again today.
And, of course, the substantive answer is what Secretary Kerry said yesterday, that the only reason there are all these foreign jihadis in there is because Assad’s brutality has created this chaotic situation.
Today, however, a new argument was being made. And the opposition has made this before, but this time, we heard it from seasoned Western diplomats, who said, actually, that the Assad regime is in cahoots with the al-Qaida-linked groups. And their proof is that in areas that ISIS, as it’s called, these al-Qaida-linked groups control, the regime doesn’t bomb.
They will bomb a town next door, and they don’t bomb Raqqa, the city that ISIS has taken control of. and furthermore, this Western diplomat alleged, ISIS is financing itself through oil revenues out of oil wells that essentially the regime is allowing them to have control over and operate.
So, if that is demonstrated to be true, essentially, what they’re saying is, you want to talk about terrorism, let’s talk about terrorism. And the charge is that the Assad government is deliberately encouraging these al-Qaida foreign fighters, some of whom used to get have, you know, in Syria long ago during the occupation of Iraq, that they’re using that to demonstrate to the West that, in fact, the choice is what this diplomat called the big lie: It’s Assad or al-Qaida.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner joining us from Geneva, thanks so much.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Hari.