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Mediator backs Feb. 10 for more Syrian peace talks

  • 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: U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi tried to put a positive spin Friday on the first face-to-face meetings in three years between Syria's warring sides, suggesting they reconvene Feb. 10 for a fresh attempt at bridging the chasm between them.

Both sides have agreed to meet again, Brahimi told reporters at the end of the eighth consecutive day of intense and bitter negotiations in Switzerland that have produced no tangible results. The veteran diplomat still described 10 areas of "common ground" that might provide room for a little bit of optimism about breaking through the deadly impasse.

"Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build," Brahimi told reporters at the U.N.'s Palais des Nations.

"The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground - perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize," he said. "Things have gone so far down that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight."

Brahimi said the opposition agreed to return on Feb. 10 and the government also had agreed to come back, but that it first wanted some time to consult in Damascus before firmly agreeing to the exact date.

Weeklong negotiations have been strained over issues such as the opposition's demand for - and the government's resistance to - a transfer of power in Syria. The talks have so far failed to achieve any concrete results, including the passage of humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs.

The fact that the negotiations - aimed at ending the three-year civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people - continued for the entire week was seen by many as an encouraging start. But the two sides continue to blame each other for the violence in Syria and remain deeply divided over how to end the war and if Syria's future government should include President Bashar Assad.

On Thursday, Syrian negotiators observed a minute of silence to honor the tens of thousands of people who have died - a rare moment of unity in talks otherwise marked by divisions and bitterness. Syrian activists say around 1,900 people were killed in clashes at home during the week of talks alone.

The opposition is demanding a transitional governing body with full executive powers and wants Assad to step down. The government delegation says that's a nonstarter and has insisted that the talks focus first on ending the violence.

Opposition spokesman Louay Safi insisted Friday that a transitional governing body is the only way forward.

"The regime clearly doesn't want a political solution, doesn't want to move a step forward to end the Syrian suffering," he said.

About 200 pro-government demonstrators gathered Friday outside the U.N. building in Geneva to show their support for Assad.

"We are with the peace negotiations. Syria needs peace. Weapons will not benefit us. We are with peace and peace comes by talks," said protester Sabah Kasouha, who used to live in Homs. "When all the countries stop funding the rebels who came from many countries to destroy Syria, then we will be fine."

Assad's family, from Syria's Alawite minority, has ruled the country since 1970 while rebellions by members of Syria's Sunni majority were crushed.

The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful calls for reform in March 2001 and escalated into armed conflict in response to a military crackdown. It has since transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting opposing sides.

Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have infiltrated the opposition rebels, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion against Assad.

 
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Summary

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi tried to put a positive spin Friday on the first face-to-face meetings in three years between Syria's warring sides, suggesting they reconvene Feb. 10 for a fresh attempt at bridging the chasm between them.

Weeklong negotiations have been strained over issues such as the opposition's demand for -- and the government's resistance to -- a transfer of power in Syria.

The two sides continue to blame each other for the violence in Syria and remain deeply divided over how to end the war and if Syria's future government should include President Bashar Assad.

Syrian activists say around 1,900 people were killed in clashes at home during the week of talks alone.

Assad's family, from Syria's Alawite minority, has ruled the country since 1970 while rebellions by members of Syria's Sunni majority were crushed.


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