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Syria talks open with acrimony and testy exchanges

A member of Oxfam placed roses on symbolic gravestones at the opening of the Syria talks in Montreux.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Associated Press

A member of Oxfam placed roses on symbolic gravestones at the opening of the Syria talks in Montreux.

MONTREUX, Switzerland — Friction and acrimony broke out almost immediately Wednesday with the start of a long-delayed peace conference on Syria, punctuated by a testy exchange between the Syrian foreign minister and the leader of the United Nations, casting doubt on the prospects for easing hostilities or even opening up emergency aid corridors to help besieged civilians.

The conference of delegates representing 30 countries in Montreux, already troubled by last-minute diplomatic stumbles, was described by Secretary of State John Kerry as a test for the international community. But the meeting had barely begun when the atmosphere grew even more charged over divisions between the United States and Russia and among the Syrians themselves.

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The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, who led his country’s delegation, was openly defiant, calling insurgents evil and ignoring appeals by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to avoid invective or even yield the floor as a bell rang signaling that he exceeded the time for his remarks.

“You live in New York, I live in Syria,” Moallem snapped after Ban asked that he conclude his speech, which lasted more than 30 minutes.

After Moallem finished Ban lamented that his injunction that participants take a constructive approach to the crisis “had been broken.”

Despite the lack of concrete progress, several Syrians expressed hope the conference signaled the start of a process in which Syrians might eventually overcome their differences.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Ibrahim al-Hamidi, a veteran journalist for the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper, originally from Idlib, Syria. “After three years of military struggle, when the opposition tried very hard to destroy the regime, and the regime tried very hard to crush the opposition, this is the first time the two delegations sit down in one room under UN auspices.”

On the eve of the conference, Kerry, Ban, and Sergei V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, engaged in a calculated display of comity, a gesture that appeared intended to play down the United States’ successful lobbying effort to persuade the United Nations to withdraw its invitation to Iran to attend the meeting.

“Do we all look happy?” Lavrov quipped as the three held hands for a Tuesday night photo opportunity.

But when the conference opened Wednesday the sharp differences reemerged. Kerry said it was unthinkable that President Bashar Assad of Syria could play a role in a transitional administration that would govern the country as part of a political settlement. The establishment of such a transitional body by “mutual consent” of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition is the major goal of the conference.

“The right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles,” Kerry said. “And the only thing standing in its way is the stubborn clinging to power of one man, one family.”

But Lavrov challenged the US insistence that Assad be excluded from a possible transitional administration, arguing that the conference had to “refrain from any attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.” Lavrov also revived the Russian argument that Iran, Assad’s regional ally, should be present, challenging the US position that Iran not be allowed to participate until it publicly endorses the mandate for the conference.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and other top officials expressed doubt that the conference would produce results.

While the stark differences between the US and Russia positions were outlined in civil tones, that diplomatic restraint was abandoned when Moallem took the floor and launched into a diatribe in which he accused Arab nations of financing terrorism and conspiring to destroy his country.

“They have used their petrodollars to buy weapons,” he said, “and to flood the international media with lies.”

Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition, opened with the story of Hajar al-Khatib, 11, who he said had been shot by government forces as she rode a bus to school in Rastan, in May 2011, in the early days of the protests.

“Ten-thousand children have died because of the Syrian army,” he asserted.

Syrians “waited almost a year before they fought back,” he said, referring to the transformation of a largely peaceful protest movement to an armed insurgency. “Who, ladies and gentlemen, would accept to be violated in this manner? How long should they have waited?”

“We want to be sure we have a Syrian partner in this room,” Jarba said, alluding to the conference’s goal of establishing a transitional administration.

“Do we have such a partner?” Jarba added, noting that the opposition would never accept a role for Assad in a transitional administration.

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