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Resumed Syria peace talks already stalled

Syrian women and children react as they stand outside of a house following a reported air strike by government forces on the al-Haidarya neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on February 11, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE / KHALED KHATIB)

GENEVA: Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are not making much progress, the international mediator said Tuesday after a face-to-face meeting of the warring parties in Geneva that both sides called fruitless.

Negotiations intended to end Syria’s 3-year-old civil war began with a weeklong session last month and have resumed this week in Geneva. There had been hopes for Tuesday’s talks after they began with a minute’s silence for the 130,000 people killed since the conflict began.

But Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat charged with running the internationally sponsored talks, told a news conference the second round so far was as “laborious” as the first: “We are not making much progress,” he said.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Tuesday was a “lost day” while opposition spokesman Louay Safi said “no progress” had been made.

The talks have been held up over the agenda, with the opposition wanting first to discuss plans for a transitional government, and the government insisting the first issue must be fighting terrorism – a word it uses for all armed rebels.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Brahimi had proposed that they use Tuesday to discuss ending the violence and Wednesday to raise formation of a transitional governing body.

But both sides said the agenda had still not been agreed.

“Today was another lost day because the representatives of the coalition insisted that there is no terrorism in Syria,” Mekdad said of the opposition stance.

National Coalition spokesman Safi said: “It is obvious the regime is stalling and still believes in a military solution.”

Anas Abdah, a strategist in the opposition team, said: “The regime is consistently trying to get rid of the transitional governing body. Today it basically refused to discuss it.”

The opposition believes a transitional administration must exclude Assad. The government will not discuss his leaving.

Brahimi said the talks must focus on the need to “help Syria out of the nightmare its people have been living through.”

“Violence and terrorism, this is what the Syrian people want to put an end to, isn’t that so? And how can this end without an agreement on the steps to be taken on the future of the country?” he asked.

An agreement on evacuating civilians from Homs – a hub of the revolt against Assad – was the only tangible result of January’s talks but the operation started only last week amid blame-trading for delays and breaches of a U.N.-brokered truce in the city. A draft resolution calling for the lifting of sieges in Syria, to allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, was distributed to U.N. Security Council members despite Russia’s opposition, diplomats said.

Western powers have been trying to persuade Russia to get behind the resolution, which calls on all parties to “immediately end the sieges of the Old City of Homs” and other Syrian cities where thousands of civilians are trapped by fighting.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow that the draft was “absolutely unacceptable,” because it contained an ultimatum for the government of Assad. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Russia has on three occasions blocked Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Syria.

This time, the Western powers are betting that Russia will find it difficult to block a resolution with a humanitarian objective.

The draft resolution, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, calls for unhindered access to populations in need of aid, the lifting of the sieges, an end to the use of “starvation as a method of combat,” and a demand that Syrian authorities stop aerial bombardments of populated areas. In an effort to placate Moscow, the draft also condemns “the increased terrorist attacks.”

Obama said that Russia had a “responsibility” to ensure that Syria complies with a deal to hand over its chemical weapons.

Washington has said only limited shipments of chemicals have left the Syrian port of Latakia so far – far less than the 700 tons the country was supposed to dispose of by the end of 2013, under a U.S.- Russia brokered deal.

“ Syria must meet its commitments and Russia has a responsibility to ensure that Syria complies,” Obama said in a press conference with French President Francois Hollande.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “great shock” over reports of a massacre in the Syrian village of Maan.

A statement released by Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said the U.N. leader was disturbed by reports of killings in Maan on Feb. 9. “Dozens of civilians are said to have been brutally killed,” the statement said.

“The secretary-general condemns in the strongest terms all violence against civilians and calls for the perpetrators of this massacre, and all other crimes in Syria, to be brought to justice.”

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 25 members of Assad’s Alawite sect, including 10 women, were killed by Islamist fighters in Maan, in Hama province, Sunday. Rebels have denied carrying out the massacre, saying they killed only adult combatants.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are not making much progress, the international mediator said Tuesday after a face-to-face meeting of the warring parties in Geneva that both sides called fruitless.

Negotiations intended to end Syria's 3-year-old civil war began with a weeklong session last month and have resumed this week in Geneva.

The opposition believes a transitional administration must exclude Assad.

A draft resolution calling for the lifting of sieges in Syria, to allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, was distributed to U.N. Security Council members despite Russia's opposition, diplomats said.

Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Russia has on three occasions blocked Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Syria.

Obama said that Russia had a "responsibility" to ensure that Syria complies with a deal to hand over its chemical weapons.

Washington has said only limited shipments of chemicals have left the Syrian port of Latakia so far – far less than the 700 tons the country was supposed to dispose of by the end of 2013, under a U.S.-Russia brokered deal.


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