Final preparations for the Syria peace talks are under way in Montreux, where delegations are due to convene on January 22. Best known for its jazz festival, the city has a long – and often secret – diplomatic history.
Heavy rain drums against the bright-yellow canvas awnings covering the windows on the front of the five-star Montreux Palace Hotel. Outside, the main high street is quiet.
“I can’t tell you very much, everything is rather up in the air at the moment but that’s normal as it’s always last minute,” said Gisèle Sommer, head of public relations at the spectacular Belle Epoque five-star hotel, which should play host to the high-profile gathering of over two dozen foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry.
There is less than two days to go until the talks are set to open in Montreux. If they actually go ahead, they are to be followed by negotiations on January 24 between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition at the historic Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Meanwhile workmen lug equipment into the Montreux Music and Convention Centre ahead of the possible arrival of 500 journalists from around the world.
Cantonal police and 500 soldiers – and jet pilots due to patrol the Swiss skies – are also active behind the scenes, readying for not one but two high-level international events this week. The Syrian talks are set to clash with the World Economic Forum in Davos. It’s putting a strain on security resources.
The move to Montreux was necessary because a luxury watch fair has taken up all the hotel rooms in Geneva. But the small lakeside town was an ideal second choice because it has the security, facilities and hotels for such a high-profile gathering, and, despite its reputation as home of the famous jazz festival, boasts a tradition of organizing international gatherings and discrete peace meetings.
The Montreux/Geneva peace talks, dubbed Geneva II, aim to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the United States, Russia and other major powers in June 2012, including the creation of a transitional government that would lead to holding elections.
But the prospects for success at the peace talks appear dim. With his troops keeping their momentum on the ground, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has said he will not surrender power and may run again in elections due in mid-2014.
The conference is due to open in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux on January 22, with foreign ministers speaking on the first day. The conference will break up and then reconvene on January 24 at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, where the two Syrian sides will meet. Some 500 delegates from 30 countries, including 20 ministers as well as 500+ journalists, are expected to attend.
An estimated 130,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war, which began in early 2011. Along with 6.5 million internally displaced people, there are 2.3 million Syrians who have fled the country during the war. Most of those are scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements across neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.end of infobox
Montreux developed rapidly in the 1850s from a small cluster of villages and hamlets, surrounded by mountains, vineyards, fields and forests, into a tourist and health resort largely thanks to its microclimate attracting wealthy, prestigious international visitors.
“The opportunity of dialogue and discussion in a natural calm setting is in Montreux’s genes. Every summer the town welcomed aristocrats and members of European governments,” says Montreux mayor Laurent Wehrli.
The 1906-built Montreux Palace may be best known for its many well-known musical guests such as Miles Davis and Prince or writer Vladimir Nabokov, but the hotel also has a long diplomatic history.
On the first floor of the Montreux Palace, just outside the magnificent Salle des Fêtes ballroom, a metal plaque bears witness to the Montreux Convention, or Dardanelles Treaty, signed there on July 20, 1936, by Greece, Turkey, England, France and Russia. This important peace pact, which is still in force, gives Turkey control over the Bosporous and Dardanelles straits and regulates the transit of naval warships.
A newer plaque can be found on the other side of the ballroom, marking the 13th Summit of French-speaking nations, or La Francophonie, which took place in Montreux in October 2010. Some 30 heads of state, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, stayed at the Montreux Palace during the summit.
But many other high-level peace and diplomatic meetings have taken place in the city, such as those that led to the signing of the 2008 Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Firms – an international law initiative launched by Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Others were more secret, such as talks that reportedly took place in August 2001 between Russian parliament members and Chechen officials to discuss the ongoing conflict in the breakaway republic.
More recently, the bilateral trade agreement signed by Switzerland and China last July was preceded by preparatory talks in Montreux. Last October diplomats from 20 Middle East countries reportedly met at the Victoria Hotel in the village of Glion above Montreux to discuss the denuclearization of the region.
“These kinds of meetings are quite common,” says former Montreux archivist Evelyne Lüthi-Graf.
She explains that on top of the wealth of hotels and facilities, the city provides a safe, calm setting, and the locals are extremely discrete.
“They are typical [canton] Vaud people – they don’t care about what’s going on next door,” she quipped.
Swiss teach opposition negotiation skills
Over the past few months Swiss diplomats and experts have reportedly been helping train Syrian opposition groups in negotiating skills in preparation for the forthcoming Geneva II talks.
This follows a request to the foreign ministry from Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria. Several Swiss experts work for Brahimi’s team in Geneva.
The foreign ministry reportedly held two preparatory peace negotiations training sessions in Montreux and Istanbul last November. These were attended by members of the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella opposition body in exile. Several days later the foreign ministry held a similar course in Montreux for members of another opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change.end of infobox
Unofficial peace efforts
Perched high above Montreux in the village of Caux, just a short hop from Glion, the former Caux Palace Hotel, now an international meeting place, has also been influential in hosting unofficial peace-building and reconciliation gatherings organised by the non-governmental organisation Initiatives of Change.
The NGO, founded by an American Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman, in the 1920s and formerly known as the Oxford Group and later renamed the Moral Re-Armament, is said to have helped encourage Franco-German and Japanese South-East Asian reconciliation after the Second World War. More recently it has been heavily involved in peace initiatives in the Great Lakes region and Sierra Leone in Africa, as well as in Lebanon and Cyprus.
“It’s about trying to build links of trust and friendship between individuals who may later make a peace process work,” explains the organisation’s spokesman Andrew Stallybrass.
“You can bully people and force them to sit down at the negotiating table and impose economic sanctions, but unless there is a real will for peace it will break down.”
Unfortunately, he added, the forthcoming talks were not looking very promising.
Based on the NGO’s experience in peace mediation, he said “neither side is at the point of weariness or readiness to compromise”.
He added: “We also have to ask ourselves, ‘Who is not sitting at the table? Who is not taking part in the dialogue?’, as when you answer that question it may give a clue why you are not heading in the right direction.”