has already killed more than 130,000 Syrians. Having set aside their differences last year to co-sponsor the talks that are finally getting under way, Russia and the United States profess an urgent common goal of halting the bloodshed.
"It is hard to have expectations at the back of all this," said a source at the talks who has advised the opposition. "But Moscow and Washington are genuine on ending the conflict. They are sincere and this meeting is not for show."
Assad's representatives may highlight the threat to the West and its Arab allies from al Qaeda and other militants fighting his forces. But Western leaders say they fully back opposition demands that Assad step down, something they say was the conclusion of the U.N. conference in Geneva 18 months ago.
Russia endorsed that communique but has disagreed with Western powers which say that, by calling for a transitional government in Damascus, the meeting known as Geneva 1 made Assad's removal a condition for a peace settlement.
Neither side in Syria has either appeared able to complete a victory. Though much divides the rebels, who have been fighting among themselves, they are united in wanting Assad out. So reaching a settlement that satisfies both sides seems a distant prospect.
Discontent stretches back to the rule since 1970 of Assad's father, who took power in a military coup, but it boiled over in March 2011 as Syria's drought-hit economy struggled and the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired protests.
When those were crushed, the revolt became a war that has taken on an increasingly sectarian complexion, setting majority Sunnis against Assad's Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. It has also drawn in rival powers with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the rebels and Iran standing by Assad.
Al Qaeda-linked militants and other Islamists have emerged as the most powerful forces on the rebel side, dampening Western appetite for direct intervention. Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite ally Hezbollah have helped Assad. And violence has spread, notably to neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon.
For all the low expectations on Lake Geneva, millions of Syrians in refugee camps hope something will change. "Let them please find a solution for this problem," Mohammed from Homs said at a U.N. centre in Lebanon. "Let us go home."
* Day of speeches opens with U.N., U.S., Russian remarks
* UN's Ban calls for immediate humanitarian access
* Russia's Lavrov says