Bitterness of Syria war shows itself in Geneva

By Zeina Karam, AP

GENEVA–The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria’s civil war were on full display this week at peace talks in Switzerland — and not just in the closed room where rival delegations are seeking a way to end the three-year conflict.

For the first time since the country devolved into its bloody civil war, supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad — many of them journalists — are meeting face to face. The mix is producing more than just awkward moments between people with vastly different views.

In the hallways of the U.N.’s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers have flared. Scuffles have broken out as journalists interrupt rival reports, government officials have received extraordinary public grillings, and a distraught mother confronted the Syrian government delegation at their hotel.

“It has been a rare opportunity to meet and get to know each other again,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist working for the London-based Arabic regional newspaper, Al-Hayat. “It’s unnerving for both sides.”

In Geneva, anti-government activists accuse journalists supporting the regime of coming with a specific mandate to ask disruptive questions. And for government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling.

“The regime’s delegation feel besieged here, they are on the defensive — clearly the weaker party,” claimed Rima Fleihan, a member of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group.

During an impromptu briefing at last week’s opening session in Montreux, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi was hounded by a widely known anti-government activist who pressed him on the government’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs against civilians in the hard-hit northern city of Aleppo.

“Who is using barrel bombs in Aleppo? “ Rami Jarrah asked. “I will give you the Google coordinates of ISIL headquarters in Raqqa. Why don’t you bomb them?,” he demanded, referring to the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which hopes to turn the war into a regional conflagration that would allow it to take deeper root.

Jarrah had the tables turned on him a day later, when an Assad supporter at a small but boisterous pro-government rally shouted at him: “You have destroyed Iraq, Libya. You will never do that to Syria!” This was in reference to what many government supporters see as an opposition allied with the West.