Syria’s information minister, speaking in Montreux, Switzerland, the day before peace talks were set to begin denied a civil war was raging in his country — insisting the fighting pits government troops against terrorists.
The United Nation-sponsored talks, referred to as Geneva II, start on Wednesday. They aim to reach a political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria.
“Our main aim is fighting the terrorism from al Qaeda and Nusra that is spreading all around the region,” Omran-al-Zoubi told NBC News late Tuesday. “There is no civil war in Syria; the foreign media has been mistaken from the start to call it a civil war. In Syria there is a fight between a government and terrorism. “
Paul Goldman, NBC News
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi arrives in Montreux on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in advance of peace talks with opposition leaders.
His remarks echo similar statements given by Syrian President Bashar Assad, the heir to a family dynasty that took power in 1970 and whom the opposition demands must be removed.
Then, apparently referring to documents disclosed on Monday that purport to show evidence of large scale killing of detainees in Syria, Zoubi said those images aren’t from Syria at all but instead were taken elsewhere around the Arab world.
“We have a team working on them that will prove that they are not from Syria,” Zoubi said.
Also traveling as part of the delegation is Bashir Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. He called the negotiations a “national dialogue among the Syrians themselves.”
“We are not here to discuss if President Assad is a good guy or a bad guy, were here to discuss the future of Syria,” Ja’afari said. He also called the recent photos fabrications, and said terrorists from 83 nations have come into Syria.
The Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed group opposed to Assad, will also take part in the talks. That group confirmed Monday that its delegates would participate after the U.N. rescinded an invitation to Syrian-ally Iran to join in negotiations.
Indeed, the conference in the Alpine city will be the first time the Syrian government and opposition leaders have met face to face in an effort to end three years of civil war.
First initiated by the United States and Russia, the conference is the beginning of a process to implement what is known as the Geneva communique, an official statement that calls for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria with full executive authority that is to be formed by mutual consent of the warring parties.
To those ends, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on Tuesday had a "businesslike" conversation by phone, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Montreux, where the talks will be conducted.
While Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told his state’s news agency any discussion of Assad’s future is a “red line” in discussions, expectations are high for the conference to be the beginning of an end to the conflict.
United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he hopes Wednesday's first day at Montreux's Palace Hotel can lead to detailed discussions down the lake in Geneva later. U.N. diplomats said they are hopeful the talks could initially bring at least some relief for Syrian civilians, by improving humanitarian relief flows, as well as setting up prisoner exchanges.
Still, all agree just getting the regime and the opposition to the bargaining table was an important first step.
"It is hard to have expectations at the back of all this," a source at the talks who has advised the opposition told Reuters. "But Moscow and Washington are genuine on ending the conflict. They are sincere and this meeting is not for show."
Catherine Chomiak of NBC News and Reuters contributed to this report.