Bashar Jaafari, the chief negotiator of Bashar al-Assad's regime at the Geneva peace talks, has said he will not talk to the chief negotiator of the Syrian opposition delegation Mohammed Alloush unless he "shaves off his beard."
Alloush, a devout Muslim and a senior leader of the Islamist rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, is the chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of Syrian opposition groups.
Indirect talks began in Geneva on Monday after the welcome success of a ceasefire last month, but for now they consist of "proximity talks" as UN negotiators speak to both sides separately. Jaafari's personal attack on Alloush in Arabic is likely to continue distancing direct talks, reports AFP on Thursday.
"We will not engage with this terrorist in direct talks, with this terrorist in particular, and so there won't be any direct talks unless this terrorist apologizes and also shaves off his beard," said Jaafari.
Making the demand ironic is that Jaafari himself has a cropped beard, although not of the scale of Alloush's.
Jaafari's comment highlights the huge divide between Assad's secular elite inner circle, and the religious Sunnis who lead the opposition.
Alloush spent years studying religious jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, and his organization is said to be supported by the Sunni Saudis.
Meanwhile the 59-year-old Jaafari has been Syria's representative to the UN for almost ten years. Like Assad he is a member of the minority Alawite sect that branched from Shi'ite Islam, he is married to an Iranian and is fluent in Persian. Tehran has been a key backer of Assad.
Even as Syria is being widely destroyed in an internecine civil war, Jaafari has been living in a nearly $6 million town house in Manhattan once owned by former US President Richard Nixon.