BEIRUT: Syrian and American officials traded blame Sunday for the failure of last week’s round of Geneva II peace talks, which sought an end to a three-year conflict that has claimed more than 140,000 lives, according to the latest estimates by pro-opposition activists.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed “obstruction” by the regime of President Bashar Assad for the breakdown in talks.
“None of us are surprised that the talks have been hard, and that we are at a difficult moment, but we should all agree that the Assad regime’s obstruction has made progress even tougher,” Kerry said.
In a statement, Kerry urged the regime’s supporters to press for the creation of a transitional government, warning they would bear the responsibility “if the regime continues with its intransigence in the talks and its brutal tactics on the ground.”
The peace talks broke off Saturday with no tangible result and no date was set for a third round, but Kerry said Washington remained committed to the Geneva process and all diplomatic efforts to find a political solution.
“There’s no recess in the suffering of the Syrian people, and the parties and the international community must use the recess in the Geneva talks to determine how best to use this time and its resumption to find a political solution to this horrific civil war.”
More than 140,000 people have died and millions have been driven from their homes since the conflict began. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, which gave the new casualty estimate Saturday, said nearly 5,800 people had been killed since the Geneva talks began on Jan. 22.
For his part, Syria’s foreign minister accused the U.S. of trying to create a “negative climate” for dialogue at the second round of peace talks.
Walid al-Moallem made his remarks to state news agency SANA during the government delegation’s return to Damascus.
He said the United States tried to “create a very negative climate for dialogue in Geneva.”
“The second round did not fail, contrary to media analyses that have appeared and the reactions of the foreign ministers for France and Britain,” Moallem added. U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi ended the Geneva round Saturday without finding a way of breaking the impasse.
Brahimi told a news conference that both sides agreed that the agenda for the next round should focus on four points: ending the violence and terrorism, creating a transitional governing body, building national institutions and reconciliation.
To avoid losing another week or more before resuming discussions, Brahimi said he proposed that the first day should be reserved for talks on ending violence and combating terrorism, the main thrust of the government’s stance, and the second for talking about how to create a transitional body, as the opposition and Western powers insist.
“Unfortunately the government has refused, which raises the suspicion of the opposition that in fact the government doesn’t want to discuss the TGB [transitional governing body] at all,” Brahimi said.
“In that case, I have suggested that it’s not good for the process, it’s not good for Syria that we come back for another round and fall in the same trap that we have been struggling with this week and most of the first round,” he said. “So I think it is better that every side goes back and reflect and take their responsibility: Do they want this process to take place or not?”
Brahimi said he would consult Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about a way forward.
“I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people that their hopes which were very, very high that something will happen here,” Brahimi said.
The talks’ modest achievement has been a U.N.-brokered truce in the city of Homs that has allowed aid workers to deliver some food and medicine for hundreds trapped in the rebel-held areas. More than 1,000 people were also evacuated from the city, which has been under government blockade for more than a year.
An official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said Sunday its workers have entered the western Damascus suburb of Moadamieh to deliver food for the first time in 15 months of government blockade.
Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations with the Red Crescent, told the Associated Press that the agency was allowed to take 500 food parcels into the suburb. A truce has been in place in the area for two months, Erksoussi said, but Moadamieh remains surrounded by army checkpoints and troops.
Erksoussi appealed for more aid to be allowed for at least 10,000 residents of the suburb, which was targeted by a chemical weapons strike in August.
As the Geneva process stumbled, signs mounted that foreign backers of the opposition would seek to shore up mainstream rebel groups.
The first tangible development came Sunday, when Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, was replaced by Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir al-Nuaymi, the head of the Qunaitra Military Council.
There was speculation that the move was linked to the weekend’s about-face by Asaad Mustafa, the defense minister in the opposition’s interim government. Mustafa announced his resignation Friday, citing the failure of Geneva II, but then went back on his resignation.
And an article in the Wall Street Journal Saturday maintained that with the failure of Geneva II, sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons would shortly be making their way to the rebels.
The article said that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf backers have offered to provide Chinese man-portable air defense systems, known as “Manpads,” to the rebels, although the White House remains opposed to the transfer of such weapons, afraid that they might fall into the hands of extremists.
The article said the weapons would be transferred from Turkey and Jordan, while some analysts believe that the move will strengthen FSA groups in the south, led by Bashar Zoubi, a prominent rebel commander.