AMMAN, Jordan — Peace talks in Switzerland to end the Syrian civil war began Wednesday with the United States and Syrian diplomats clashing over a sticking point that has existed for months — whether President Bashar Assad can remain in power.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad's violent crackdown on peaceful dissent in a nearly three-year war means he cannot stay. But Assad's foreign minister insisted that no one outside Syria has the right to remove the government.
The talks have been pushed by the Obama administration even though both sides have said for weeks that they do not accept the legitimacy of the other. In his opening remarks, Kerry sided with Assad's opponents who say he must go.
"We really need to deal with reality," Kerry said. "There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern. One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage.
"The right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles. It comes from the consent of the people," Kerry added.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem then took the lectern and lashed out at Kerry and U.N. General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon, who is overseeing what is a second attempt at a peace negotiation in Switzerland.
"You live in New York. I live in Syria," he told Ban, refusing a request to stop talking. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."
Al-Moallem said one of the reasons for the war is that the West and neighboring countries have been providing money, weapons and foreign fighters to the rebellion.
"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," he said. "Syrians here in this hall participated in all that has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent."
Analysts said such chaos was to be expected from a forum in which neither side has any desire to end the fighting if it means the other has a share of power in Syria. If Assad were to relinquish power he would put himself at risk for war crimes charges, they say, given that his forces have killed as many as 100,000 Syrians after several cities rose up in demonstrations to demand democratic reforms.
"There is no benefit from Geneva II," said Syrian National Coalition member Hisham Marwa, referring to the conference. "Everyone believes that. Neither the Syrian regime nor its allies — the Russians and Iranians — are serious about taking any step for this country."
Western powers are meeting for what is expected to be a week to 10-day conference in which Syria's Western-backed opposition and representatives of Assad are to meet face-to-face for the first time.
Even so, most players, even those pushing for the meeting, have downplayed expectations in the face of the intractable demands of both sides: The opposition will not participate in a government with Assad and wants a transitional government that does not share power with "criminals and murderers," while the Syrian president has clearly stated he has no intention of stepping down, called power-sharing "a joke" and will likely run in upcoming elections this year.
Ali Haidar, Syria's National Reconciliation minister, was defiant over the regime's position as reported by Syrian state media.
"Don't expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, nor Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis," Haidar said at a seminar in Damascus. "The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state."
Western powers, feeling compelled to take some sort of action to end the crisis, even if the prospects for success are slim, have pushed for this conference as a way to avoid military action or increased military support for the rebels, analysts say.
"The situation in Syria is so intractable that (Western) leaders really feel the need to be seen as doing something," said Frederic Hof, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and former State Department adviser on Syria.
"The something they're doing right now is calling for a conference in Switzerland that they earnestly hope will produce good results. But hope is not a plan," he said.
Since the uprising began in March 2011, more than 130,000 people have died and millions more have fled the country for Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and other nations in the region
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes Wednesday between government forces and opposition fighters in the suburbs of Damascus, Daraa in the south, Idlib and Aleppo in the north and the central province of Homs.
Marwa of the Syrian National Coalition said the Syrian opposition, which only decided to attend the meeting Tuesday, views Geneva as an opportunity to shed light on the regime's true intentions.
"The Syrian National Coalition is going to Geneva II to show the world the regime's lie – that it will hand over authority," said Marwa. "We will expose its lies to the international community."
Contributing: Associated Press