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Washington (AFP) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday headed on a perilous mission to try to kickstart talks to end the Syrian war, only hours after the high-stakes peace conference teetered on the edge of collapse.

Taking off before dawn in a bid to out-fly a winter storm bearing down on the U.S. capital, Kerry and his team warned the talks being hosted by Switzerland were just the start of a long and grinding process.

After months of U.S. cajoling, the fractious Syrian opposition had finally agreed Saturday to sit at the table with representatives of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

But only hours later they suspended their attendance at the news that Iran — Assad’s chief ally — had also been invited to join the talks opening Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux, before moving to Geneva.

After a day of behind the scenes emergency talks on Monday, the UN withdrew Iran’s invitation, averting a boycott by the Syrian opposition.

The diplomatic drama only served to highlight the divided opposition’s deep-seated, entrenched distrust of Assad and his allies, who have fought a brutal campaign to quell the uprising which in three years has left 130,000 dead and caused millions to flee their homes.

“I don’t think anyone who’s dealt with Syrian officials has any false expectations of rapid progress,” a senior State Department official told reporters on a conference call Monday. “Everybody has to understand that this is the beginning of a process. It’s not going to be fast. It’s very bitter fighting on the ground. And so there’s going to be an absolute requirement for patience and for persistence.”

It’s already taken some nine months to coax the two sides to the table, since the idea for a peace conference dubbed Geneva II was first mooted by Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a visit to Moscow in May.

And although Washington and its allies have insisted the talks are aimed at building on a first Geneva communique in June 2012 to chart a path towards installing a transitional government, the Syrian president has totally dismissed that agenda.

On Sunday in an exclusive interview with AFP, Assad even said there was a “significant” chance he may run again in presidential elections slated for June.

That suggestion was dismissed as “ludicrous” by the State Department official on Monday.

“This is a guy who has used Scud rockets. This is a guy who’s used chemical weapons on several occasions, killing literally thousands of people. This is a guy who has surrounded cities and starved them,” the official said.

“The idea that international observers could go into Syria in the middle of a war and manage an election process in which the family controls the election machinery is ludicrous,” he added.

But the opening of peace talks, which will also bring together some 40 countries and regional bodies, was important, he stressed.

It gave the opposition a chance to put some detailed proposals they have drawn up on the table, and to show those weary of the war inside Syria that there was a different path.

The conference could provide “an impetus” towards finding a way forward, with Washington saying it was regularly receiving messages from those close to Assad that “they want a way out.”

“It will be an unprecedented opportunity for them to actually show Syrians inside Syria and even inside the regime that the problem is not the state, the problem is not Syrians who have been backing Assad,” the State Department official said. “The problem is the family and the immediate circle around Assad, and that there is a way to isolate those people and move forward as a country.”

AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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