Syria peace summit begins: can talks stop the bloody civil war?

Ban Ki-moon

Foreign ministers descend on Montreux despite 'near-zero' expectations of a political breakthrough

LAST UPDATED AT 09:32 ON Wed 22 Jan 2014

A MAJOR conference aimed at resolving the three-year conflict in Syria has kicked off today - but commentators are questioning how much it can really achieve.

Foreign ministers from around 40 countries, including the UK, US and Russia, have gathered in Montreux for a day of speeches before decamping to Geneva for two days of talks. The Syrian government and the main opposition group are both attending the summit, known as Geneva II.

The week got off to a shaky start when UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who is chairing the conference, was forced to withdraw a last-minute invitation to Iran after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks.

Yesterday the pressure on international leaders to find a humanitarian solution to the war increased as evidence of 'systemic killing' by government officials emerged. The evidence included 55,000 digital images of around 11,000 corpses, said to be those of detainees who had been tortured and murdered.

The Guardian's Ian Black says there are "near-zero expectations of a political breakthrough" at the summit, but there is slight hope of a deal on confidence-building measures and improved access for humanitarian aid on the ground to relieve the suffering of millions of ordinary people.

Black says prospects for progress depend on co-operation between the US and Russia.

The BBC's Paul Wood says that getting the Geneva process under way is seen by some as "an achievement in itself". In almost three years of civil war, there has never been a dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

But even if such a dialogue begins in Montreux, the opposition figures doing the talking do not, by and large, speak for the armed groups doing the fighting, says Wood. "There was, briefly, the tantalising prospect - held out by some American officials - that representatives of some key armed groups would attend. But that does not seem to have happened and it is a serious problem."

The key issue, says the BBC, is the future of President Bashar al-Assad - and it is an issue on which neither side appears willing to budge. The opposition wants to see him removed but Assad has repeatedly said he will not step down.

Compromise is "rendered impossible" by the fact that Assad is seen as essential to a peaceful outcome, the "butcher who remains indispensable until he can eventually be manoeuvred off the stage", says Roger Boyes in The Times.

"He will bombard and slaughter until the last minute. By dint of our failure to challenge Assad early on, to create safe zones to shield civilians from massacre, we have lost the will, or the ability, to stop this man," says Boyes. "In the meantime, Syria disintegrates." · 

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