GENEVA: After more than a week of negotiations aimed at ending its civil war, Syria’s government refused Friday to commit to a date for the next round of peace talks and roundly dismissed the opposition’s demand to transfer power away from President Bashar Assad.
The standoff over what comes after Assad – and the uncertainty over U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi’s proposed Feb. 10 date for a second round of peace talks – underscored the tremendous challenges in finding a way out of Syria’s deadly impasse.
Brahimi said the opposition had committed to joining a second round of talks in Geneva on Feb. 10, but Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that before the government decides when to return to Geneva, Assad will hear a report on what took place during the past week. The minister also dismissed the opposition’s demand for a new governing body to eventually transfer power from Assad.
Moallem said there were no “tangible results” from Geneva and blamed the rival delegation.
“They acted as if we had wanted to come here for one hour and hand over everything to them ... It’s indicative of the illusions that they are living under,” he said.
Moallem’s announcement of the need for consultations sparked criticism from key opposition supporter the United States. “The regime continues to play games,” State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.
Brahimi tried to put a good face on the first direct meetings in three years between the warring parties, suggesting they reconvene for a fresh attempt at bridging the chasm between them.
He told reporters at the end of the eighth consecutive day of intense negotiations that although they produced no tangible results, he found 10 areas of possible “common ground.”
“Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build,” Brahimi told reporters at the U.N.’s Palais des Nations.
“The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground – perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize,” he said.
“Things have gone so far down that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight.”
The talks were strained over the opposition’s demand for – and the government’s resistance to – a transfer of power in Syria. They also failed to achieve any concrete results, especially on possible humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of Homs.
Opposition chief Ahmad Jarba said his side was committed to more talks and insisted the only way to guarantee peace was to set up a transitional ruling council with full executive powers to run the country.
“What we experienced in Geneva was like a political battle [with] representatives of a regime that is an expert in wasting time. The process was not easy and for us it was like drinking from a poison chalice,” he told reporters. “A new Syrian republic is being born in Geneva, even if we did not sign a political agreement.”
The Friends of Syria, an alliance of mainly Western and Gulf Arab countries, met in Geneva shortly after the first round of talks ended and urged Assad not to obstruct further rounds of talks.
“The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the first round of negotiations. It must not further obstruct substantial negotiations and it must engage constructively in the second round of negotiations,” the group said in a statement.
About 200 pro-government demonstrators gathered outside the U.N. building in Geneva to show support for Assad.
“We are with the peace negotiations. Syria needs peace,” said protester Sabah Kasouha, who used to live in Homs. “When all the countries stop funding the rebels who came from many countries to destroy Syria, then we will be fine.”
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said she was frustrated that the talks didn’t produce solutions for getting aid to people in blockaded communities.
Speaking in New York, Amos said she was “extremely concerned that, while the discussions continue to try and find a political solution to the crisis, ordinary men, women and children are dying needless across the country and others are desperate for want of food, clean water or medical care.”