Representatives of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Western-backed opposition are due to meet for the first time at peace talks after nearly three years of civil war.
As the delegates were arriving in Montreux, Switzerland, photographic evidence of widespread torture by the Syrian government made headlines worldwide, pushing Assad's opponents to renew demands that he quit and face an international war crimes trial.
Assad has insisted that he may be re-elected and said that the talks should focus on fighting "terrorism" - his term for his enemies.
The gap between the two parties seem almost impossible to narrow. Who are the key players and diplomats who will attempt to do so?
Assad's foreign minister is a tough and experienced Sunni diplomat with a long track record of loyalty to the embattled Syrian president. Appointed in 2006, he blamed a foreign plot to oust Assad for the demonstrations that rocked the country in 2011 and dismissed any possibility of the president giving up power. He comes from a wealthy Damascus Sunni family, allied with the Alawite minority that dominates Syrian politics.
President of the National Coalition, Jarba is a 44-year-old former political prisoner, who was arrested during the 2011 uprising and fled to Saudi Arabia. Since then, he has been accused by detractors of being a Riyadh puppet in the Syrian opposition. Jarba was elected six months ago after the defeat of the Islamist bloc. He was questioned after he slapped a coalition member at a meeting two months ago. A member of the Shammar Arab tribe, Jarba has established a relationship with Kurdish parties who were brought into the coalition.
Vladimir Putin's foreign minister was often slammed by senior American officials for his intransigence – hence his nickname "Minister Nyet". A long experience as Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Lavrov is one of the most able and skilled diplomats in the world. He was known at the UN for his command of the issues – but also for doodling sketches during lengthy meetings. Defiant and macho, Lavrov even ignored an effort by former secretary-general Kofi Annan to ban smoking in the UN HQ saying that Annan did not own the building. When US secretary of state John Kerry made an offhand remark about how Assad could avoid a military strike if he dismantled the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, Lavrov caught the moment and set the ground for a peace plan.
The US secretary of state spent much of the last month in trying to convince the divided main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, to participate in the Geneva 2 talks. He described the 22 January peace conference as the beginning of a process "that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution". He remarked that selecting new leaders for Syria on which each side agree is the only way forward. "We too are deeply concerned about the rise of extremism," he said.
It seems that the UN secretary-general has started the peace talks with the wrong attitude. Ban naively invited Iran, Assad's main regional ally, to take part in Geneva 2 without first asking Tehran to agree to the principles of the earlier summit. The invitation enraged the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the National Coalition – which threatened to boycott the conference unless Iran agreed on the issue of a transitional government. In less than 24 hours, Ban backtracked and retracted his invitation. This time, it was the turn of Lavrov to complain, saying that Ban's decision to pull the last-minute offer was a mistake, although not a catastrophe.