This photo taken on Jan. 21, 2014 – the day before the Syria peace talks opened in Switzerland – shows Syrian emergency workers and civilians at the scene of a bombing in the northern city of Aleppo. Government forces reportedly dropped a barrel bomb on a minibus carrying civilians.
Credit: AFP
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UPDATE: 1/22/14 4:10 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed, but you can still catch up on the day's events. Please check here for further developments.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 4:00 PM ET

Where things stand

At the end of the day in Montreux, it was all about looking for the silver lining. The Syrian government and opposition weren't even remotely on the same page about further talks, but the US said the fact they were even at the same table after three years of war was an accomplishment.

Despite the acrimonious tone, no one had walked away from the talks by day's end on Wednesday.

While expectations for the talks remained low, Reuters reported a "UN mediator said the warring sides may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid."

"We have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, the liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy told a press conference.

The Syrian opposition, represented at the talks by the Syrian National Coalition, called for an inquiry into allegations of torture and mass killings carried out by Assad's regime.

Ahmad Jarba, the SNC's leader, said, "We have to stop this spiral of violence. We do call for an international inspection to visit places of detention and see the facts of torture that our citizens face every day."

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem characterized the Syrian civil war as the government's fight against terrorism.

"In Syria, the wombs of pregnant women are cut open, the fetuses are killed," Moallem said, referring to alleged rebel atrocities. "Women are raped, dead or alive ... Men are slaughtered in front of their children in the name of the revolution."

While the talks were off to a shaky start, the war in Syria continued.

Reuters reported:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported clashes and air strikes around the country. Around Damascus, government artillery hit villages and rebels clashed with the army in the neighborhood of Jobar on the northeast fringe of the capital, it said. Activists also reported clashes in Hama, Aleppo and the southern province of Deraa.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 3:15 PM ET

Syrians react to peace talks in Montreux

Tracey Shelton, in Lebanon, spoke to Syrian refugees and former rebels about their hopes — or lackthereof — for the peace talks:

Lava Muslem, Syrian refugee recently fled to Turkey

"Unfortunately, the Syrian regime adheres to its opinion about the survival of Assad, president of Syria, and on the other hand the opposition is sticking to its opinion about the departure of Assad. How can we be optimistic? ... The biggest loser is only the poor people of Syria. These people will die until extinction."

Juma al Qassim, rebel activist in Syria

"Geneva II is a completion of Geneva I and both of them are a prelude for Geneva III and so on!"

Kinda Zaour, female activist in Turkey

"Geneva II is a lie we desperately want to believe in. Nothing will change in Syria, and nothing will change with the public opinion except for knowing new stories about the death of Syrians and the ingenious ways they are being killed."

Abdulsalam Hindawi, rebel activist currently in Turkey

"We Syrians hope this conference will put an end to the suffering of Syrian people but NOT without accomplishing our main target which is bringing the Assad regime down — meaning NOT without our freedom.

"What's going on in Syria is an international nasty plot. Now the plotting parties are meeting together so this game should be put to an end very soon or else the worse is yet to come. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak our minds."

Ali Jilany, Syrian rebel fighter from Aleppo

"I believe that the conference will reflect a big change in Syria, especially in Aleppo, but I don't see al-Assad leaving."

Bashar Ismael, former Syrian rebel, now sought refuge in Turkey

"I am optimistic because Geneva II is better than the people bleeding every day and living on promises of warlords. Second, the Geneva conference is stripping all the faces of the opposition's exterior and interior. The best evidence is the withdrawal of some of them from the conference because they have sold themselves to the Gulf states and the system. Third, I am surprised by all the Syrian refugees in Europe.

"They did not participate in supporting the conference, so this confirms that most of the Syrian refugees in Europe were thieves of the revolution. I hope this conference is for each life lost and everyone who lost members of his family in the Syrian war."

Here are some more from Agence France-Presse:

UPDATE: 1/22/14 2:25 AM ET

Syrian envoy calls conference "disappointing," "fruitless"

Bashar Jaafari, Syria's envoy to the United Nations, characterized the talks in Montreux so far as "disappointing," "counterproductive," and "fruitless."

He said that those seeking to help Syria must decide between being "firemen" or "arsonists."

Jaafari also accused Gulf nations of supporting terrorism.

Here's a map of the regional alliances in the Syrian conflict:

The Syrian opposition has yet to make remarks:

UPDATE: 1/22/14 1:45 PM ET

Assad is a magnet for terrorism, says Kerry

US Secretary of State John Kerry said, "There is no one who has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorists than Bashar al-Assad."

Kerry said the roots of Syrian revolution lay in the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East three years ago. When protests first began there were no religious extremists or terrorists, only young people looking for change. And, Kerry said, they were met with bullets and violence.

Kerry reiterated that there was no future in Syria for "a man who has turned on his own people" and allowed more than 130,000 of his people to die.

"Assad has used starvation as a weapon of war, which is by the way a war crime," Kerry added.

President Barack Obama never took the military option off the table when it came to Syria, according to Kerry. The US secretary of state also made a reference to parallel tracks of support for the Syrian opposition, though he did not provide details.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 1:15 PM ET

'Enough is enough. The time has come to negotiate'

At the press briefing closing the high-level talks on Syria, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "Enough is enough. The time has come to negotiate. Syrians must come together to save their country."

He praised the conference for gathering "almost everyone" who could influence the conflict in the same room for the first time since the start of the Syrian war.

"We must seize this fragile chance," he said, calling on both sides of the conflict to put aside their grievances and approach the upcoming talks in Geneva with sincerity.

"The Syrian people are looking desperately for an escape from the nightmare in which they are trapped," Ban said, adding that "Attacks against civilians must cease."

"Ending this war and making peace will be hard," Ban conceded. "We have taken the first small step here in Montreux."

Ban said there was no military solution to the Syrian conflict, and stressed that a political solution must come from a "Syrian-led process, Syrian-owned."

UPDATE: 1/22/14 11:40 AM ET

Briefing on Syria conference

UPDATE: 1/22/14 11:30 AM ET

High-level conference ends

High-level talks on Wednesday ended, with Ban Ki-moon concluding, "This has been a very important debate."

He said Wednesday's debate was sure to inform talks on Friday, to be held in Geneva.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 11:10 AM ET

Why the Syria peace talks are probably doomed to fail

The Iranian president's remarks that there was little hope of success at the Syria peace talks may not be just bluster.

Tracey Shelton takes a look at the other hurdles facing the so-called Geneva II talks. One of the key reasons the talks may not result in a solution?

Only a small fraction of the Syrian opposition is involved.

The Syrian opposition is not one united force fighting for peace and democracy. There are hundreds of splintered groups with different leaders, goals and strategies. Many are grouped together under loose banners of allegiance that reflect common goals. Others pretty much do their own thing, and sometimes they spend more time and resources fighting each other than they spend fighting their common enemy.

Most of these were not even invited to the peace talks, including the leaders of the Kurdish forces — an ethnic group that accounts for about 11 percent of the Syrian population and now controls a significant amount of territory in Syria’s north. The many extremist organizations — including those affiliated with Al Qaeda — which control a significant chunk of the country, were also left out.

Even among the opposition groups that were invited, some refused to attend unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first resigns. Such a stance has caused further rifts between the invitees who agreed to attend the talks and those who rejected them.

More reasons why the Syria peace talks are probably doomed to failure.

The message from the town of Kafranbel in Syria was this:

UPDATE: 1/22/14 10:45 AM ET

Iran: Little hope of success

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday he believed the Syria peace talks had little hope of succeeding, according to the Associated Press.

His remarks came after UN chief Ban Ki-moon invited and then withdrew an invitation for Iran to participate in the talks at Montreux.

The Iranian president's website said the chances of success were slim because some of the country that "are behind instability" in Syria were at the talks.

While Iran is one of the Assad regime's key backers and regional allies, Saudi Arabia — its regional rival — supports the rebels.

Iran and Saudi Arabia's rivalry may have reared its head in the last week, but it's decades if not centuries old.

Here are five articles explaining the regional powers' complicated relationship.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 10:10 AM ET

Opening statements

This was the scene four hours ago:

Read the full text of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's opening statement here.

And US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks here.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 9:15 AM ET

Opposition calls for immediate transfer of power

Ahmad Jarba, who was elected as the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, called on Assad to hand over power.

"I call on (the regime delegation) to immediately sign the Geneva 1 communique (setting out) the transfer of powers from Assad, including for the army and security, to a transition government," Jarba said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Calling the Syrian conflict "one of the worst catastrophes" since WWII, Jarba appeared to appeal to the emotions of the conference attendees.

"For the Syrians, time is now blood," he said.

"We have come to represent a civilized people who have peacefully demonstrated against oppression," Jarba said, according to Al Jazeera. The decision to take up arms was imposed by the regime's crackdown, he said.

Jarba also reversed the accusations of Syria's foreign minister, saying it was the Assad regime that created an atmosphere in which Al Qaeda to thrive.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 8:45 AM ET

A defiant Syria

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called on foreign powers to stop "supporting terrorism" and insisted that only the Syrian people could decide the fate of Syrian President Assad.

"We came here as representatives of the Syrian people and state and everybody should know that nobody in this world has the right to withdraw the legitimacy of a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves," he said.

Addressing Kerry directly, al-Moallem said, "Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to confer or withdraw the legitimacy of a president, a constitution or a law, except for the Syrians themselves."

Al-Moallem also called the opposition "traitors" in his opening statement. "They claim to represent the Syrian people. 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 said.

He also took a broad swipe at Gulf monarchies, which have backed the rebels. "It is regrettable to me and to the people of Syria that representatives of states in this room are sitting with us today, while blood is on their hands — countries that have sent weapons ... encouraged and financed terrorism," al-Moallem said.

UPDATE: 1/22/14 8:15 AM ET

Assad must go, says Kerry

Agence France-Presse reported:

Assad will not be part of any new transitional government, US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Wednesday at the start of a peace conference.

"We need to deal with reality here... mutual consent, which is what has brought us here, for a transitional government means that that government cannot be formed by someone that is objected to by one side or not," Kerry said in an opening statement.

"That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transitional government. There is no way, not possible in the imagination, that the man who has lead the brutal response to his own people could regain legitimacy to govern."

"One man and those who supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and the region hostage," said Kerry, who with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov has led efforts to organize the peace conference since May.

"The right to lead the country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs nor Scud missiles," the US top diplomat said.

"It comes from the consent of the people. And it's hard to imagine how that consent could be forthcoming at this important time."

But Kerry also stressed that in a new Syria there could be no place for the "thousands of violent extremists who spread their hateful ideology and worsen the suffering of the people."

UPDATE: 1/22/14 8:00 AM ET

Talks begin with hostility

Reuters reported:

Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time at a UN peace conference, angrily spelled out their hostility on Wednesday as world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcing out Bashar al-Assad.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened proceedings at Montreux by calling for immediate access for humanitarian aid convoys to areas under siege.

"After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of fragile but real hope," Ban said, condemning a record of human rights abuses across the board.

Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused the Syrian president of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the government delegation at the one-day meeting in Switzerland immediately sign up to an international plan for handing over power.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands and painted a graphic picture of "terrorist" rebel atrocities supported by Arab and Western states who back the opposition and were present in the room.

US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord calling for an interim coalition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides must have a role and criticized "one-sided interpretations" of that 2012 pact.

UPDATE: 1/21/14 10:50 AM ET

Iran predicts talks are doomed to fail without it

Agence France-Presse reported:

Long-awaited peace talks on Syria's devastating civil war are set to go ahead this week after the UN withdrew an invitation to Iran, but Tehran said Tuesday they were doomed to fail.

Preparations were under way in the Swiss city of Montreux for Wednesday's start of the so-called Geneva II talks, after the abrupt United Nations reversal averted a Syrian opposition boycott.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon late Monday withdrew his surprise invitation to Iran, a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad, less than 24 hours after he announced it.

Iran was quick to respond, with Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi telling state television there was little chance of peace without Tehran's involvement.

"It is clear that a comprehensive solution to the Syria issue will not be found when all influential parties are not involved in the process," Araqchi said.

"Everyone knows that without Iran the chances of a real solution to Syria are not that great."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed the invitation had been withdrawn "under pressure," saying he had earlier made it clear to Ban that Tehran "does not accept any preconditions" to the talks.

"Iran was not too keen on attending in the first place," Zarif added in comments reported by the ISNA news agency.

The United States, which is organizing the talks along with Russia and the UN, had said Iran could not attend unless it agreed to the principle of creating a transitional government set out in June 2012 peace talks in Geneva.

Moscow, another key Assad ally, had pushed for Tehran to take part and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday it had been an error to withdraw the invitation.

"Of course this is a mistake," Lavrov told reporters.

But he also downplayed the move, saying "no disaster has happened" and describing the peace talks as "largely ceremonial" and a "one-day event."

This week's talks will be the most intensive diplomatic effort yet to resolve Syria's civil war, which after nearly three years has left more than 100,000 dead and millions forced from their homes.

UPDATE: 1/20/14 4:40 PM ET

Syrian opposition confirms it will attend the peace conference

Although the UN secretary general's withdrawal of Iran's invitation came after the deadline issued by the Syrian opposition, it appears the opposition has announced it will take part in the peace talks:

Earlier, the Syrian opposition told Reuters, "We are giving a deadline of 19:00 GMT for the invitation [to Iran] to be withdrawn."

UPDATE: 1/20/14 4:30 PM ET

UN rescinds invitation to Iran

The stage is set for the peace talks...

But Iran won't be among the attendees.

The statement from Ban's spokesperson regarding Iran's participation went thus:

"In that spirit, in a series of meetings and telephone conversations, senior Iranian officials assured the Secretary-General that Iran understood and supported the basis and goal of the Conference, including the Geneva Communiqué. The Secretary-General is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated commitment."

"He continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva Communiqué. Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation."

UPDATE: 1/20/14 4:15 PM ET

UN rescinds invitation to Iran

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rescinded his invitation for Iran to attend the Syria peace conference in Switzerland.

The United States, France and Saudi Arabia were among the nations that rejected Iran's participation and urged the UN to withdraw the invitation.

UPDATE: 1/20/14 4:00 PM ET

Iran won't attend the Geneva II talks if it has to accept Geneva I

The statement from Iran's UN ambassador Monday said Iran would definitely not take part in the talks beginning this week if it was required to accept the deal made in Geneva in June 2012, according to Reuters.

"If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communique, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference," Iran's Mohammad Khazaee said on Monday.

The Geneva I communique called for a political transition from the current government, a point that Iran did not explicitly accept.

UPDATE: 1/20/14 3:00 PM ET

Report showcases evidence of "industrial-scale killing" by Syrian regime

A report obtained by CNN and the Guardian collected evidence that reportedly shows the "systematic killing" of around 11,000 detainees.

The report, compiled by three eminent international lawyers, could lead to Syrian government officials being charged with war crimes.

The report includes thousands of photographs of dead bodies of those detained by the Syrian regime. The group said the evidence would stand up in an international criminal tribunal.

"This is a smoking gun," David Crane, one of the report's authors, told CNN. "Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence — the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime's killing machine."

The source of the cache of evidence was a military policeman who secretly worked for the opposition and later defected from the regime, according to the Guardian. The three lawyers interviewed him and found his account credible and "most compelling."

Timed to coincide with the Syria peace conference in Geneva, the report was commissioned a form of London lawyers acting on behalf of Qatar.

CNN noted: "The bodies in the photos showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing, according to the report."

The source, identified as Caesar, said his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees." Though he did not claim to witness the killings, he related a "highly bureaucratic system."

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses … There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse."

Read the full report.

UPDATE: 1/20/14 2:30 PM ET

Talks on the verge of collapse before they begin

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was "urgently considering his options" following the "disappointing conduct of some participants" involved in the Syria peace talks, his spokesman said Monday.

Martin Nesirky said Ban was "dismayed" at the developments after his announcement about Iran's invitation to Geneva II, according to the Associated Press.

Nesirky said Iran "has made a disappointing public statement," while adding that Iran's participation should not have come as a surprise to the United States.

Al Jazeera's diplomatic editor James Bays noted the urgency of the situation:

There is a crisis right now about whether these talks are going to take place. Everyone is asking why didn’t Ban Ki-moon issue this invitation without consulting the permanent members of the Security Council? His office is saying, ‘Yes we did consult everyone. The US knew exactly what we were doing.’

UPDATE: 1/20/14 2:00 PM ET

Assad sees 'no reason' why he shouldn't run for re-election

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, a confident Assad called the Syrian conflict a "war on terrorism."

"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," he said, regarding the presidential elections to be held in June.

Assad dismissed the Syrian opposition as a group "created" by foreign backers.

"It is clear to everyone that some of the groups which might attend the conference didn't exist until very recently," he told AFP. "They were created during the crisis by foreign intelligence agencies whether in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States or other countries."

Assad issued a dire warning of the consequences if his regime lost: "Should Syria lose this battle, that would mean the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East."

Assad's latest statements throw a bigger wrench into the talks, which were meant to build on the Geneva I accord that while calling for a transitional government didn't explicitly demand Assad's departure.

Watch Assad's interview with AFP here.

UPDATE: 1/20/14 12:00 PM ET

US to UN: Disinvite Iran

The United States urged the United Nations to withdraw its invitation to Iran Monday, because Iran had not yet committed to a transitional government.

The BBC cited US State Department officials saying Iran's statements on Syria fell short of a commitment Tehran made to the UN secretary general in private.

"The United States views the UN secretary general's invitation to Iran to attend the upcoming Geneva conference as conditioned on Iran's explicit and public support for the full implementation of the Geneva communique," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

"This is something Iran has never done publicly and something we have long made clear is required."

France echoed the US' sentiments, saying Iran should not be able to attend if it didn't support the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers.

"Participation in Geneva 2 is the explicit acceptance of this mandate," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement on Monday. "Under these conditions and in the interest of peace, it is clear that no country can participate in this conference if it does specifically accept this mandate."

The European Union also insisted that any solution on Syria must include a political transition in a statement Monday, though it didn't explicitly name Iran.

The EU said Geneva "should be the first step in a process that will lead to a political solution."

The EU's ministers called on Hezbollah — which is supported by Tehran and which in turn supports Assad's forces against the rebels — to "withdraw immediately."

UPDATE: 1/20/14 10:45 AM ET

A belated invite, met with intense opposition

On Sunday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had invited Iran to attend the Syria peace conference set to start this week.

The invite was extended after Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pledged to play a "positive and constructive role."

"Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers," Ban told a press conference.

"He assured me again and again that Iran, if they are invited, then they will play a very positive and constructive role," Ban added.

However, the belated invite was met by intense opposition Monday, with the Syrian National Coalition issuing an ultimatum.

The SNC, furious over the UN's invitation, threatened to withdraw by Monday night if the invitation to Iran wasn't rescinded.

Anas Abdah, a member of the SNC's political committee told Reuters, "We are giving a deadline of 19:00 GMT for the invitation to be withdrawn."

Abdah also told Al Jazeera that Ban's invitation was "illogical and we cannot in any way accept it."

Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Syrian rebels, also rejected Iran's participation.

Iran did not "announce officially and openly its agreement (to)... the creation of a transitional government," said a statement from the Saudi government.

That made Iran "unqualified to attend" the peace conference, according to the Saudi government.

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