Peace talks open with disagreement over Assad's future in Syria

Infighting and acrimony marked the first day of talks on the Syrian war. While State Secretary Kerry and other officials insisted that a transitional government could not include current President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian foreign minister insisted no country but Syria could dictate its own future. Margaret Warner reports.

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GWEN IFILL: Today, for the first time since the country's civil war began in 2011, the Syrian government and the nation's opposition groups sat in the same room.

But, as chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, the parties stuck to their battle lines.

MARGARET WARNER: Lake Geneva, next to the Montreux Palace Hotel, was calm and serene this morning. But, inside the hotel, the talks on how to bring peace to Syria were anything but, when it came to Syria's future and the role of the country's president, Bashar al-Assad.

Secretary of State John Kerry didn't back away from Washington's long-held position that the aim of this conference was to carry out the so-called Geneva I communique of 2012.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. 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.

MARGARET WARNER: The head of the opposition Syrian National Council insisted all parties must accept that stance, or there's no point in talking.

AHMAD JARBA, Syrian National Council (through interpreter): Any talk of Assad staying in power in any form will be a derailment of Geneva I path, so we insist that we are not in any position to discuss anything in the negotiations before these issues are decided upon within a specific time frame.

MARGARET WARNER: The Saudi Arabian foreign minister, whose government funnels money and arms to the rebels, was equally firm.

PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): It is common sense that Bashar al-Assad will have no role in a transitional government or any of those whose hands have been stained by blood.

MARGARET WARNER: But the rapid-fire demands for Assad to go were just as quickly quashed by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem.

WALID AL-MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): No one in the world, Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to give or take legitimacy to a president or government or constitution or law or anything in Syria, except for the Syrians themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: The tense atmosphere was highlighted when, alone among the 40 ministers assembled, al-Moallem went well past his allotted time. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon objected.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: But then I will have to give equal -- equal time to...


BAN KI-MOON: .. groups.

WALID AL-MOALLEM: Yourself, you live in New York. I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.

 BAN KI-MOON: Yes, of course


WALID AL-MOALLEM: This is my right.

BAN KI-MOON: This -- we have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue. Please refrain from any inflammatory...


WALID AL-MOALLEM: You spoke 25 minutes. At least I need to speak 30 minutes.


MARGARET WARNER: Outside the meeting, Syria's information minister insisted the world isn't being told the truth about events in Syria.

OMRAN AL-ZOUBI, Syrian Information Minister (through interpreter): Some foreign ministers today who spoke are taking part in misleading the world and international community and they are endorsing this misinformation. A big part of what was said today was either lies or unjust accusations or lack of data and information.

MARGARET WARNER: The Syrian government also flatly rejected a report of graphic photos released yesterday alleging the systematic torture and killing of 11,000 detainees.

There were renewed objections to the exclusion of Iran from the peace talks from Syria's ally Russia. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed the Syrian government concerns about growing threat of terrorism there.

Back in Syria, state television broadcast the peace conference live, but when opponents of the Assad regime had the floor, it showed a split-screen with images of death and destruction on one side. The opposition released its own video that showed continued fighting, in Aleppo and outside Damascus today, even as the Montreux conference opened.

The actual negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition begin on Friday at the U.N.'s headquarters in Geneva.