Middle East

Syrian peace talks on hold for the day

Damaged buildings line a street in the besieged area of Homs January 27, 2014. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

GENEVA: Negotiations between Syrian negotiators broke off earlier than planned Tuesday amid mutual accusations and the government's anger over the resumption of U.S. aid to the opposition.

The fifth day of talks focused on the transfer of power and helping besieged parts of Homs city. But there has been little progress toward resolving a key issue of whether President Bashar Assad should step aside and transfer power to a transitional government.

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi broke off the morning session after the opposition rejected a paper presented by the official Syrian delegation denouncing the resumption of U.S. aid.

"We believe this is not the best present to the Geneva conference," said Faisal al-Mikdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, calling the American decision "another manifestation of U.S. support for "terrorist groups" in Syria.

"This proves again that the United States is not interested in the success of this process, and we believe the U.S. has to desist and stop its claims that it is interested in the success of this conference," he told reporters following the meeting.

American officials said Monday the U.S. has restarted deliveries of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, more than a month after al-Qaida-linked militants seized warehouses and prompted a sudden cutoff of Western supplies to the rebels.

The officials said the communications equipment and other items are being funneled only to non-armed opposition groups, but the move boosts Syria's beleaguered rebels, who saw their international support slide, in large part because of the extremists among their ranks.

Brahimi opened the morning session reviewing the principles of the Geneva Communique of June 2012, a broad but ambiguous proposal endorsed by Western powers and Russia to provide a basis for negotiations. Assad's role in any transitional government was a red line during those negotiations and left vague. The U.S. and Russia disagreed about Assad's role, but they signed the communique.

By mid-afternoon, Murhaf Joueijati, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition's negotiating team, told reporters the Geneva talks were breaking off for the day to give time for the government to make its proposal about the future of the country within the context of the 2012 accord.

On Monday, the government presented a working paper on Syria's future, which Joueijati said the opposition rejected because it "had nothing to do with a transitional government."

"We do not know what to expect tomorrow. They are going to try to change the subject yet again," he predicted.

Assad's family, from Syria's Alawite minority, has ruled the country since 1970, pulling other religious minorities into its political orbit while rebellions by members of the Sunni majority were crushed. Today's civil war began as a peaceful uprising for freedom and rights in March 2011, but it has deepened the country's sectarian divide, and that could add to the difficulties of forming a transitional government.

Joueijati accused the government of holding up the delivery of aid to Homs, which has been under siege for nearly two years.

One complication in doing that and evacuating the city's residents is that the opposition delegation does not control armed groups inside Syria, including al-Qaida-backed militants, who do not feel bound by agreements reached in Geneva. These groups gained control of Syria's uprising as it evolved into an insurgency.

Al-Mikdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, denied the government was delaying the delivery of aid, saying authorities were still waiting for "assurances that the aid will not go to armed and terrorist groups in the city."

"The armed groups should first leave and then we are ready to provide whatever it takes to the civilians there," he said.

Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition negotiating team, told The Associated Press the transition specified in the June 2012 accord remains "our main priority at the moment."

But he said central Homs remains a priority because "the regime is still insisting on its systematic starvation policy."

The focus on Homs and the release of detainees on both sides in Syria are meant as confidence-building measures. A tentative agreement was reached in Geneva last weekend for the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in.

Homs Gov. Talal Barrazi said police, paramedics and members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are ready to arrange the evacuation and "we are waiting for the U.N.'s response." But Brahimi said security problems are delaying the evacuation.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, told reporters that trucks are on standby to deliver food and help those who choose to be evacuated. But he added, "We need that all security conditions be met to allow this interagency convoy to go."

Louay Safi, a negotiator for the opposition, said it proposed at Tuesday's meeting lifting the siege by rebels of three towns and villages: the Shiite ones of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province and the Damascus suburb of Adra, which is mixed. Safi said the rebels had besieged them because they considered they were being used by government forces as a "launching pad" to attack Aleppo.

He said there has been no progress on Homs because of concerns the people who leave it would not have sufficient protection.





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