Syria shifts from vitriol to measured remarks as talks open

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MONTREUX, Switzerland -- The Syrian government and the opposition seeking its overthrow confronted each other face to face Wednesday for the first time since a national uprising began nearly three years ago.

The talks were widely expected to last months, if not years. But there were two unexpected developments in the course of the day of speechmaking in this Swiss resort town that augured hope for a more rapid agreement.

First, there was a striking shift in tone by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, chief representative of the government of President Bashar Assad, from harsh and combative in his opening statement Wednesday morning to measured and businesslike final remarks in late afternoon.

Then, a short time later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed that the United States and Russia were working closely to find other ways to bring pressure for a solution, and that pressure includes increasing support to the rebels.

"There are still other possibilities of ways to be able to bring pressure and to try to work a solution" to the crisis, Mr. Kerry said. He said he had spoken with Soviet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had "talked at some length about this." Following those talks, "they both instructed Foreign Minister Lavrov and me to continue our efforts, which we will do," he said.

"I can tell you this," Mr. Kerry said. "What you see in the direct talks between the opposition and the Assad regime will not be the full measure of effort being expended in order to try to find a solution here." He added, "Lots of avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition."

Mr. Kerry also said he expected the growing refugee problem in Jordan and the rise of terrorist groups in both Lebanon and Syria will "compel others to think in different ways about what the options may be as we go down the road."

Another sign of a possible acceleration of efforts is that Mr. Moallem will head the Syrian delegation for the actual negotiations, to begin Friday in Geneva. Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters that Mr. Moallem is prepared to stay "not one or two or three sessions," but for a long-term dialogue, "whatever it takes."

Mr. Jaafari also said Syria was ready to discuss every aspect of a U.N. action plan that Moscow and Washington drafted in June 2012. It calls for creation of a transitional government, in charge of security and all other functions, members of which both rebels and Assad negotiators would have to agree on. But Mr. Jaafari said the June 2012 statement was a "package," and he pointed to its call for a nationwide cease-fire as an integral part of that package.

For those attending the daylong conference in the Lake Geneva resort, the most lasting impression was Mr. Moallem's shift in tone. In his opening remarks, he said no one has the right to withdraw legitimacy from the Assad regime other than Syrians, and they will decide that in a national referendum.

Mr. Moallem accused the opposition of "selling themselves to the highest bidder," meaning Israel, and betraying their country. He accused them of massive crimes, including rape, murder and even cannibalism. He urged the world to join his government in the fight against terrorism.

The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, spoke of children being executed by regime forces, of 200,000 "martyrs" in the course of the uprising and of 9 million residents forced into exile or internally displaced. He said the opposition would join the talks in hopes of achieving "a full solution," based on transferring all of Mr. Assad's state authority to a transitional body.

By late afternoon, there was a different Mr. Moallem. He deplored speeches by most of the 40 nations represented that he said were full of "aspersions" that were "out of place" and did not "deserve a response."

Then he added: "We want to put a stop to the bloodshed in Syria. We want to protect the lives of the people and rebuild the infrastructure in Syria. ... That is why we are here. I want to express the hope that the Geneva conference will be a first step on the road to a dialogue on Syrian territory."


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