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First round of Syria talks fails to narrow gap

A Syrian man carries the body of a victim out of the rubble of a destroyed building following alleged air raids by government forces on the rebel-controlled part of Aleppo's Maadi residential district on January 29, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / AMC /ZEIN AL-RIFAI)

GENEVA: International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday that he does not expect to achieve anything substantive in the first round of Syria talks ending Friday, but hoped for a more productive second round starting about a week later.

His sombre assessment came as the two sides took a first tentative step forward by agreeing to use the same 2012 road map as the basis of discussions to end the three-year civil war, though they disagreed about how talks should proceed.

“We talked about the TGB [Transitional Governing Body], but of course it is a very, very preliminary discussion and more generally of what each side expects,” Brahimi told reporters.

Asked his expectations for the first weeklong round expected to end Friday, he said: “To be blunt, I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantive.

“I am very happy that we are still talking, but the ice is breaking slowly. But it is breaking,” he said, adding that he was not disappointed.

Opposition and government sides said they agreed to use the “Geneva communique,” a document endorsed by world powers at a conference in June 2012, and which sets out the stages needed to end the fighting and agree on a political transition.

“We have agreed that Geneva I is the basis of the talks,” opposition spokesman Louay al-Safi said.

The Syrian government delegation, which had earlier submitted its own document that it wanted the talks to focus on, said it would use the Geneva communique, with reservations.

There was still no sign of a breakthrough in attempts to relieve the suffering of thousands of besieged residents of the rebel-held Old City of Homs, an issue that had been put forward to break the ice and build confidence at the start of the talks.

“We also tried to see what is happening over the humanitarian issues, in particular about Homs. Negotiations between the United Nations and the Syrian authorities are still ongoing,” Brahimi said of the stalled U.N. aid convoy.

“Mr. Brahimi said tomorrow they are going to discuss terrorism because stopping terrorism is the first issue that should be handled,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Shaaban rejected the opposition’s call for a transitional governing body but also suggested for the first time that a presidential election scheduled to be held later this year may not take place amid the raging violence.

“It’s very difficult to imagine how presidential elections could be conducted in such an atmosphere,” Shaaban told AP. “The logical thing to do is to try to stop violence and then to launch a political process.”The Geneva communique refers to the government and “armed opposition groups,” but there is no mention of “terrorism” or “terrorists,” terms used by the Syrian government to describe those fighting to overthrow Assad.

The opposition delegation wants discussion of the transitional governing body to come first, including its size and responsibilities, Safi said.

“They seem to be more ready to discuss that issue, but still they are trying to push it to the back of the discussion. We told them this has to come first, because nothing else can be achieved unless we can form the transitional governing body.”

The opposition says transitional arrangements must include the removal of Assad, which the government rejects.

Despite contradictory interpretations of Geneva I by the two sides, organizers of the talks at United Nations headquarters in Geneva have made it a priority to keep the process going and dissuade either side from walking out.

The absence from the talks of powerful Islamist groups opposed to Assad, and of Iran, Assad’s main regional ally, has put a major question mark over what can be achieved.

The United States and Russia, the joint sponsors of the conference, agreed Wednesday to increase the pressure on the two sides to reach a compromise, Russia’s state-run RIA news agency reported, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

The opposition wants the government to allow in a U.N. aid convoy for 2,500 people under siege in the Old City of Homs, but the government has said it needs to be sure the food and medicine will not go to armed groups or terrorists.

“It is still stalled, as far as I know,” said Patrick McCormick, spokesman of the U.N. Children’s Fund.

Access to Homs and other besieged areas holding an estimated 250,000 people is seen as a proving ground for the peace talks.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 30, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday that he does not expect to achieve anything substantive in the first round of Syria talks ending Friday, but hoped for a more productive second round starting about a week later.

The Syrian government delegation, which had earlier submitted its own document that it wanted the talks to focus on, said it would use the Geneva communique, with reservations.

The Geneva communique refers to the government and "armed opposition groups," but there is no mention of "terrorism" or "terrorists," terms used by the Syrian government to describe those fighting to overthrow Assad.

The opposition delegation wants discussion of the transitional governing body to come first, including its size and responsibilities, Safi said.

The opposition wants the government to allow in a U.N. aid convoy for 2,500 people under siege in the Old City of Homs, but the government has said it needs to be sure the food and medicine will not go to armed groups or terrorists.


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