MONTREUX, Switzerland — Peace talks intended to carve a path out of Syria's civil war got off to a rocky start Wednesday as a bitter clash over President Bashar Assad's future threatened to collapse the negotiations even before they really begin.
The dispute over Assad cast a pall over an international peace conference that aims to map out a transitional government and ultimately a democratic election for the country mired in fighting that has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions.
While diplomats sparred against a pristine Alpine backdrop, Syrian forces and opposition fighters clashed across a wide area from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south, activists and state media said.
Just hours into the talks in the Swiss city of Montreux, the two sides seemed impossibly far apart. Complicating matters, both Assad's delegates and the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition claimed to speak for the Syrian people.
The U.S. and the Syrian opposition opened the conference by saying that Assad lost his legitimacy when he crushed the once-peaceful protest movement against his regime.
"We really need to deal with reality," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "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 Syrian response was firm and blunt.
"There will be no transfer of power and President Bashar Assad is staying," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters after the day's speeches were done.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said terrorists and foreign meddling had ripped his country apart. He refused to give up the podium despite numerous requests from the U.N. chief.
"You live in New York. I live in Syria," he angrily told U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."
Ahmad al-Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition had wavered up to the last minute on whether to attend the peace talks that have been largely opposed by rebel brigades in Syria. He said any discussion of Assad's continued hold on power would effectively end the talks.
A transitional government "is the only topic for us," he said.
But al-Moallem insisted that no one except Syrians could remove Assad. He also accused the West and neighboring countries — notably Saudi Arabia, which he did not name — of funneling money, weapons and foreign fighters to the rebellion.
"The West claims to fight terrorism publically 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."
He also criticized the opposition coalition, which is based in Turkey and is largely made up of exiles with little sway on events inside Syria.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later criticized the Syrian government's rhetoric as "inflammatory."
At least 130,000 people have been killing in the fighting that began with a peaceful uprising against Assad's rule in March 2011, according to activists, who are the only ones still keeping count after the U.N. abandoned its efforts. The fighting in Syria has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, and taken on post-Cold War overtones with Russia and the United States backing opposite sides.
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