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(Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad's government and the Syrian opposition are scheduled to sit at peace talks for the first time on Wednesday in Switzerland after nearly three years of civil war.
Assad has the advantage of iron control over his delegation, which is led by officials with long diplomatic experience. The political opposition in exile is struggling to overcome internal divisions and is weakened by rebel statements rejecting its authority. Below is a description of key players:
Assad's foreign minister and head of the government delegation. As ambassador to Washington in the 1990s, when Syria and Israel embarked on failed peace talks, Moualem has more than a decade of direct experience in high-stake talks.
The 73-year old career diplomat was appointed foreign minister in 2006 to signal a more flexible foreign policy by Assad. Moualem can talk tough. He has denied findings of a U.N. investigation that said he threatened former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri two weeks before Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut in 2005.
In public appearances since the revolt against Assad's rule broke out in March 2011, Moualem has toed the official line, blaming the demonstrations on a foreign conspiracy and dismissing the possibility of Assad giving up power. Moualem is from a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus, where an alliance between the city's wealthy Sunnis and Assad's Alawite minority, has been a pillar of the four-decade rule by the Assad family.
An adviser to Assad and a rare non-security figure with direct access to the president. An Alawite who was a translator to the President's father, Hafez al-Assad, Shaaban's career has been shaped by the elder Assad and his historic decision before his death in 2000 to turn down a peace deal with Israel that would have returned most of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Shaaban, who has acted on occasions as a de facto spokesman for Bashar, has a PhD in English literature from Britain. Although she espoused reform early in the revolt, she has appeared more hardline as the anti-Assad camp took up arms. She has denied that children were killed in a nerve gas attack on rebel neighborhoods of Damascus in August last year.
Officially deputy foreign minister, Mekdad is one of the most powerful figures in the cabinet by virtue of his connections with the intelligence apparatus and the ruling Baath Party. A protégé of Farouq al-Shara, Syria's ceremonial Sunni vice president who has been sidelined since the revolt started, Mekdad is calm and deliberate in projecting support for Assad, while being fiercely critical of the uprising and the subsequent rise of Islamist rebels. He is from the southern province of Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt.
Information minister and a lawyer by training, also from Deraa. Zoabi, an avowed Baathist like Mekdad, has been assuming a more public role on the domestic scene defending Assad's handling of the revolt and attacking the opposition as stooges of foreign governments.
Syria's U.N. ambassador. Jaafari is close to Assad and his defense of Assad's handling of the revolt has been key to projecting to an international audience an image of government cohesiveness. Erudite and confident in public, Jaafari worked and studied in France.
KEY OPPOSITION FIGURES ATTENDING
President of the Western-backed umbrella opposition group in exile, the National Coalition. Jarba was elected six months ago after a bitter power struggle that saw the ascendancy of an opposition bloc backed by Riyadh but less influenced by Islamists.
Jarba's leadership was called into question when he slapped a coalition member at a meeting of the coalition two months ago, but he has since defeated a challenge to his leadership by a Qatari-backed wing and established rapport with Kurdish parties who were brought into the Coalition.
Born in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka, which is inhabited by Arabs and Kurds, 44-year-old Jarba belongs to the Shammar, a large Arab tribe that extends into Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He was a political prisoner for two years in the 1990s. He was also arrested during the uprising and fled to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state that is leading support for the Syrian opposition.
A Christian opposition campaigner who has spearheaded efforts by the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition to appeal to minorities, Kilo is considered the brains behind the ascendancy of Jarba to the coalition. A veteran opposition campaigner and former political prisoner, he has a deep understanding of the Assad family and the intricate working of the security apparatus. A writer versed in several languages, Kilo was jailed for three years before the revolt after writing a column criticizing the Alawite domination of the military.
Former President of the Syrian National Council, the forerunner of the National Coalition, Ghalioun, a professor of politics living in France, has been advocating democratic reform in his homeland since the 1970s. Criticized for his aloof leadership style when he was Council president, Ghalioun has assumed a low-key but influential role in the Coalition as a figure well-connected with Gulf and Western governments.
One of the few women in the coalition, Atassi is the scion of a political family from the city of Homs with a long history of opposition to Assad family rule. A holder of a French literature degree from Damascus University, Atassi helped organize bold demonstrations in central Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners that helped spark the revolt. She was jailed for a month and soon after her release she Criticized Assad's proposed reforms as insufficient, saying he cannot remain "behaving as if he is the master of Syria".
A geologist by training, Abdeh represents a younger generation of pragmatic Islamists with exposure to the West. Abdeh, who lives in Britain, is the external representative of the Damascus Declaration, a movement for political reform.
(Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Peter Graff and Eric Walsh)