Avoiding eye contact and definitely not shaking hands, Syria’s bitter opponents had never been so close, as they traded barbs just metres apart Wednesday at a peace conference in Switzerland.
Sitting at either end of a large table, with representatives of the United Nations, opposition supporter the United States and regime-backer Russia between them, the two delegations avoided all contact during their historic first meeting since bloody civil war began nearly three years ago.
The meeting in the idyllic town of Montreux kicked off on a relaxed and friendly note, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon walking around the hall overlooking Lake Geneva, shimmering in the sunlight, greeting the Syrians and delegates from some 40 other nations.
But the deep divisions were quickly apparent, as the opposition continued to stress its sole aim of toppling President Bashar al-Assad — something the regime has insisted is out of the question.
The smiles faded when a stony-faced Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem launched into a rambling address attacking the opposition.
“If you want to speak in the name of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people, agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people,” he spat out, looking at the opposition delegation with disgust.
Muallem’s speech went on well beyond the 10 minutes he had been allotted, as he waved aside Ban’s repeated attempts to rein him in.
“You live in New York and I live in Syria… I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum,” he defiantly told Ban, pointing out that the UN leader had spoken for 25 minutes.
This response drew laughs from his delegation, as well as from some of the around 1,000 journalists covering the event via videolink at a nearby press centre.
After going on for more than 30 minutes, Muallem responded to another objection promising to wrap up with a final sentence.
Ban allowed him to go ahead, but said he hoped he would keep his promise.
“Syria always keeps its promises,” Muallem said.
Ban was not amused, lamenting that Muallem had broken the “constructive” atmosphere he had hoped for and urging a grinning Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, to show more restraint.
Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky later downplayed the UN leader’s irritation at Muallem.
“Let’s not make a Swiss mountain out of a mole hill,” he told journalists at the nearby press centre, flanked by snow-dusted Alps.
Jarba was less abrasive than his opponent, keeping his eyes glued to his manuscript, but still hammered home that the opposition expected the peace conference to be “the preamble to Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and his trial alongside all the criminals of his regime”.
Syrian state television meanwhile broadcast his speech in a split screen alongside footage of death and destructions under the heading of “Terrorist Crimes in Syria”.
During a break in the meeting, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, seemingly inadvertantly, wandered into the heart of the press centre, and was immediately mobbed by camera and note-book wielding reporters.
Flustered by the crush, he turned on his heels but stressed as he left that “Assad will not go,” and accused the opposition of backing radical Islamist militants.
Asked what it was like spending a day in the same room as the opposition, Assad advisor Boutaina Chaabane told AFP she had felt “sadness”, since “some of the parties present have nothing to do with the Syrian people”.