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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block. The Syrian peace conference got off to a bitter start today with sharply opposing visions over a future role for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. More than 40 countries sent delegations and many of their speeches struck similar themes decrying the vast human suffering in Syria and calling for a political solution to the crisis.
But as the conference opened, combative remarks by Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, threatened to dash hopes for the negotiations. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from the Swiss city of Montreux. And Deb, this was a long awaited conference. As we say, it got off to a dramatic start. Tell us about these remarks from Syria's foreign minister.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, let me begin with saying that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kicked off the conference. He was demanding the removal of Assad from power. So when Syria's foreign minister had his turn, he lashed out. It was a scorching speech full of accusations against the U.S., against Turkey, Saudi Arabia.
He accused these countries of funding and arming terrorists inside Syria. It's a line that I've heard since June of 2011. In the opening statements here, it just shows how high the hurdles are. Muallem's speech was supposed to be 10 minutes. As he got to the 20 minute mark, Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, a consummate diplomat, tried to get him to wrap it up. They ended up sparring and here's the exchange.
WALID AL-MUALLEM: I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.
SECRETARY BAN KI-MOON: Yes, of course. You know, I cannot object to that.
AL-MUALLEM: (Unintelligible) this my right.
KI-MOON: This, you know, we have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue. Please refrain from any inflammatory remarks and accusing some of the members that are participating here so which will not be constructive at this time.
AL-MUALLEM: It is constructive.
AMOS: That is not how the UN chief saw it. But foreign minister Muallem went on for another 20 minutes and his bottom line, President Bashar al-Assad's departure is not negotiable.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that because this whole conference was based on the idea of negotiating a transitional government by mutual consent. Judging by the Syrian foreign minister's remarks, that's not their idea of what they're doing there at all. So does this mean the Syrian government has rejected the entire purpose of these talks?
AMOS: It's the most important question of the day. Now, what the opposition says is why are we going to sit down? What are we going to talk about? They are demanding an explicit acceptance and a six-month timetable and they say they will walk if they don't get it. Now, by the end of the day, foreign minister Muallem said some more conciliatory remarks. He said this meeting chartered the first steps to dialogue. So in fact, there may be these meetings on Friday.
BLOCK: Overall, Deb, how would you describe the mood or the tone of this conference after the first day?
AMOS: What was striking to me, for the first time, you had opposing media here. Syrian state media and reporters for the opposition. They went to the same press conferences. They were in the media center at the same time. This is completely unprecedented for Syrians. Their behavior also shows how hard this is all going to be.
Here's one example. Akmed Faquari(ph), he was superstar in Syria. He was an anchorman, but he defected. He now works for an opposition TV station. He saw his old colleagues here and he said those were painful meetings. Here's what he said.
AKMED FAQUARI: I was surprised. I tried to connect them because we are Syrian. I see them, that they are kidnapped. I could escape. They couldn't say hi to me because they are afraid from each other.
AMOS: That's Akmed Faquari, a defected TV news anchor. And it's a sign of how large the hole is in Syria's social fabric. Syrians are the most gracious people in the Middle East, but the war has changed them.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Deborah Amos covering the Syrian peace talks in the Swiss city of Montreux. Deb, thanks so much.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.