Middle East

Syria foes blame each other for violence

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi attends a press briefing on peace talks at the United Nations headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

GENEVA: Syria’s warring sides got bogged down in a dispute Thursday over who was responsible for the violence in the country, as peace talks in Geneva focused on “terrorism.”

While the mere fact the rivals agreed on a topic of discussion was seen as a step forward, the first round of talks are expected to wrap up Friday with no concrete progress on ending the violence, agreeing on a political transition or ensuring humanitarian aid to millions in need.

“There is of course agreement that terrorism ... is a very serious problem inside Syria, but there’s no agreement on how to deal with it,” U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters ahead of the seventh and final day of talks.

But “this is really the beginning of our process,” Brahimi stressed. “I hope that when we come back we’ll have a more structured discussion.”

The U.N. mediator is expected to announce Friday a second round of talks in Geneva after about a week.

During the interval, Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba will visit officials in Russia, one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, his top aide told AFP Thursday evening.

Syria’s regime and opposition have been brought together in Geneva in the biggest diplomatic push yet to end a civil war that has left over 130,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

And just getting the warring sides in Geneva to sit down together for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011 is seen as an important step forward.

“The important thing is that the parties meet in the same room,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Berlin.

The sixth day of talks had gotten off to a positive start, with the two sides sharing a minute of silence for all the victims of the Syrian tragedy.

But even that symbol of unity was shattered when both sides insisted they were the ones who had requested the gesture.

The regime delegation then went on to present a text it wanted the other side to agree on, urging all states to “prevent and stop the funding of terrorist acts.”

The text, obtained by AFP, also insisted that “fighting terrorist organizations and driving them out of Syria is a common objective and duty for every Syrian.”The opposition rejected the communique as “one-sided” and “unacceptable,” delegation spokesman Louay Safi told reporters, pointing out that the text failed to denounce “the regime’s crimes against humanity.”

He insisted it was useless to discuss how to rein in violence before setting up a transitional government, called for in the never-implemented road map to peace adopted in 2012, without Assad.

The current regime “wants to keep the head of the regime at the expense of destroying the whole country,” he said. The regime delegation has said Assad’s position is not up for debate in Geneva.

Despite a constant combative tone, Brahimi said Wednesday “the ice is breaking, slowly,” between the two sides.

This did not, however, mean that he had seen “any change in the position of the two interlocutors,” he said Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, no progress was seen toward fulfilling the only tangible promise of the talks so far: the regime’s promise to allow women and children safe passage from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs.

U.N. bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they are on standby with aid but are waiting for approval to move in.

“I am disappointed, very, disappointed,” Brahimi said, lamenting the dire situation for some 3,000 people living with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies in the areas that have been under siege since June 2012.

Regarding Jarba’s planned visit to Moscow, his head adviser Monzer Aqbiq said: “Mr. Jarba has accepted the Russian invitation and will go to Moscow on Feb. 4.” Russia had earlier invited Jarba to Moscow for a visit which would have coincided with a trip by representatives from President Bashar Assad’s government.

At the time, Jarba’s staff said that he was interested in traveling there, but was unable to do so due to prior commitments.

Mindful of Russia’s clout, the opposition has sought to keep a line open to Moscow from the outset.

“Members of the opposition for the past almost three years have been speaking to Russian officials both formally and informally,” said Rafif Jouejati, a coalition spokeswoman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2014, on page 1.




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