MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
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 U.N. 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: After three years of suffering, this my right.
KI-MOON: This, you know, we have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue.
AL-MUALLEM: I have con - you've spoken 25 minutes...
KI-MOON: Please refrain from any inflammatory remarks ...
AL-MUALLEM: ...at least I need to speak 30 minutes...
KI-MOON: ...and accusing some member states participating here so - which will not be constructive, at this time.
AL-MUALLEM: It is constructive.
AMOS: That is not how the U.N. 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. Ahmad Fakhouri - 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.
AHMAD FAKHOURI: 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 Ahmad Fakhouri, 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.