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 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.
More than 130,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, and millions of people have been uprooted from their homes. The conflict has pitted neighbor against neighbor. People who were once friends have stopped talking to each other. Journalists who once worked together have been separated. Sectarian tensions, once tamped down under Assad’s grip, have exploded into the open.
Many journalists have been forced to leave the country, either thrown out by the regime or going into self-imposed exiled in order to continue their work freely. Many have switched jobs to work with opposition or government outlets.
“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.
The Syrian government delegation couldn’t escape such encounters even in the comfort of their hotel — ironically named the Hotel de la Paix or Hotel of Peace. On Wednesday, the government’s chief negotiator and his team were confronted by the mother of a British doctor, Abbas Khan, who died last month while in Syrian government custody.
“For God’s sake, why did you kill my son?,” Fatima Khan screamed as the team walked out of their hotel. “He was a humanitarian worker, he wasn’t a fighter. Don’t you have a heart?”
Pro-government journalists have capitalized on the fact that most members of the opposition’s main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition are longtime exiles who have lived abroad for years, casting them as stooges of foreign powers. Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the group’s negotiating team who lives in the United States and speaks Arabic with an American accent, was interrupted during a briefing by a journalist who demanded that he speak in Arabic.
“We are Syrians and I need the answer in Arabic. Do you even know how to speak Arabic?” she chided.
At one of his daily press conferences, U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was peppered with so many questions from pro-government Syrian journalists that he quipped: “Is there anyone in this room who is not Syrian?”
On the live television position in the U.N. garden, with a peaceful vista of Europe’s highest mountain Mont Blanc in the background, both sides make outrageous accusations, clearly playing to an international audience less familiar with the war.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi claimed people in the besieged city of Homs were eating “cats and dogs” because the governments restrict aid convoys. Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaba accused extremists allied with the opposition of “burning people alive in ovens.”
In comparison, delegation members say the negotiations inside the meeting room with Brahimi have been more civilized, though sometimes tense.
Outside, the delegations try not to cross paths, often milling about away from the podium, speaking to journalists or strolling around outside to avoid contact. On one occasion, al-Zoubi, the information minister, found himself standing back to back with an opposition delegate, as each talked to different reporters. Al-Zoubi was hastily led away by an aide.
As bitter as things may be, some are hopeful the small encounters can eventually help begin a healing process for a ravaged country.
“It’s a learning process for both parties,” Hamidi said. “And it sends signals to the Syrians back home.”