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Iran absence, Syrian detainee torture photos complicate peace talk diplomacy

January 21, 2014 at 6:08 PM EDT
As negotiators began to arrive in Geneva for Syrian peace talks, expectations from both sides seemed irresolvable and Iran's absence was a point of tension. Meanwhile, a new report revealed photographic evidence of the torture and killing and of some 11,000 detainees by the Assad regime. Margaret Warner reports.

GWEN IFILL: Delegations from dozens of countries are arriving in Switzerland for tomorrow’s peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s bloody civil war. But, so far, the highly publicized absence of one country is casting a shadow over the event.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

Some of the images in her story may be disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: The arrivals hall at the airport in Geneva today was jammed with diplomats and negotiators, including the head of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition.

He made clear his goal:

BADR JAMOUS, Secretary-General, Syrian National Council (through interpreter): We hope that the people of Syria have great confidence in us. We are here to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and the demands of the Syrian revolution. And we will not accept less than removing the criminal Bashar al-Assad and changing the regime and bringing the criminals to justice.

MARGARET WARNER: That seems the longest of long shots at the moment. Syrian President Assad has made it equally clear he has no plans to give up power.

Moreover, the sessions planned in lakeside Montreux, amid tight security, already hit a diplomatic speed bump with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon inviting Iran Sunday night, and then disinviting Tehran yesterday. Today, Iran said it never wanted to go in the first place.

MARZIEH AFKHAM, Iranian Foreign Ministry (through interpreter): About us not being invited to the Geneva II talks, I have to announce that we were never interested in participating. This was the U.N. secretary-general insisting that we participate in these talks, and now they have canceled their invitation. This is very unfortunate and sad, and we are very keen to know the real facts as to why he was forced to reverse this invitation.

MARGARET WARNER: Criticism also came from the Russians, who said it was a mistake not to include Iran.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Despite the largely ceremonial nature of the event, the absence of Iran in the list of 40 countries cannot but raise questions.

MARGARET WARNER: And a major new revelation today in a document commissioned by Qatar, a report from three former war crimes prosecutors, with photographs of what they said was the torture and killing of some 11,000 detainees by the Assad regime. They reportedly were taken by a Syrian police photographer who’s now defected.

Desmond de Silva is one of the report’s authors.

DESMOND DE SILVA, Syria Inquiry Team: The pictures are reminiscent of the worst pictures that came out of Belsen and Auschwitz after the Second World War. And these poor creatures were not just starved, but they were also tortured whilst they were starving.

MARGARET WARNER: In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague saw some of the 55,000 digital images.

WILLIAM HAGUE, British Foreign Secretary: I have seen a lot of this evidence. It is compelling and horrific. And it is important that those who have perpetrated these crimes are one day held to account.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. State Department called the report and photographs extremely disturbing.

Even before this, among the two million refugees who’ve endured three years of civil war, hopes were not high for a positive outcome in Montreux.

IBRAHEEM QADDAH, opposes Geneva Conference (through interpreter): We have lost our faith in the international community. We don’t care about Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not. We have lost many of our relatives and friends and family members in the fighting, and we have lost Syria.

UM HADI, Syrian (through interpreter): All countries are plotting against the Syrian people; no one is supporting the Syrian people. If the international community wanted to solve the crises, they would do that. People are being killed for nothing. No one cares about the Syrian people.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama discussed the Syria conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone today. They, along with the U.N., are the conveners of the conference, and will be represented by Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.