MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — 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 war-torn Middle East nation.
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, where the uprising against Assad began three years ago, activists and state media said.
In Switzerland, the U.S. and the Syrian opposition opened the conference by saying the Syrian leader lost his legitimacy when he crushed a once-peaceful protest movement.
In a strong riposte, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem countered that terrorists and foreign meddling had ripped his country apart. He refused to give up the podium despite 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."
Less than three hours into the peace talks in the Swiss city of Montreux, the two sides seemed impossibly far apart.
"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."
Both Assad's delegates and the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group, meanwhile, claimed to speak for the Syrian people.
The Syrian opposition leader — Amhad al-Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition — had wavered up to the last-minute on whether to attend peace talks that have been largely opposed by rebel brigades in Syria. He insisted Wednesday that 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.
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."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later criticized the Syrian government's rhetoric as "inflammatory" and al-Jarba's chief of staff called it a false distraction.
"All of what they say is lies," Jarba's chief of staff, Monzer Akbik, told The Associated Press. "The Syrian people are fighting al-Qaida in the North. It was the regime that brought al-Qaida in."
At least 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began after a peaceful uprising in March 2011 against Assad's rule, according to activists, who are the only ones still keeping count after the U.N. abandoned its efforts. The fighting has forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes.
The question of Assad's future goes to the heart of the peace conference with the stated goal of a transitional government for Syria. Notably absent was Iran, which along with Russia has been Assad's most forceful supporter.
Ban invited, then disinvited Iran at the last minute, after the Syrian opposition threatened to back out of the peace talks less than 48 hours before their scheduled start.
Al-Moallem's comment that only Syrians had the right to decide upon their government was a pointed jab at the number of countries involved in the Syrian conflict. The fighting 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. His criticism also hit the opposition coalition, which is based in Turkey and is largely made up of exiles with little sway on events inside Syria.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose government has funneled millions to the rebels, said "it goes without saying that Assad has no role in Syria's future." He also called on foreign forces to withdraw from Syria, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militias.
Syrian state television aired al-Moallem's speech in full, but then cut away to archive footage of car bombs and sectarian attacks during speeches by al-Jarba and the Turkish foreign minister — keeping their discourse in the background.
Diplomats have played down expectations for the Swiss peace talks, although they have said repeatedly they are the only hope for ending Syria's civil war. But Assad's forces have gained ground in recent months, and the man whose family has led Syria since 1970 has tried to portray the rebellion as driven by foreign terrorists who are trying to create an al-Qaida-inspired haven.
The president of Iran, which was invited at the last minute then abruptly disinvited after the opposition threatened to back out, said the peace talks were unlikely to succeed. Iran has given Assad billions in aid, including weapons and Shiite fighters.
"Considering all signs, I don't have much hope that this meeting can succeed in fighting terrorism, because some countries sponsoring terrorism are taking part. Also I don't think it will succeed in establishing peace and stability because the countries that created the instability are taking part," said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Later this week in Geneva, Syria's warring sides will sit down for their first face-to-face meeting since the conflict erupted.
"I pray that the Lord touches everyone's hearts so that they do everything in their power to urgently end the violence, in the interests of the poor Syrian people," said Pope Francis, who also sent a delegation.
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler and Lori Hinnant contributed.