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Syria Talks Move to Crucial Stage

  • Al Pessin

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, speaks during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2014.

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, speaks during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2014.

Senior representatives of the Syrian government and opposition are expected to hold their first direct talks after nearly three years of bitter fighting on Friday, when they gather with a mediator at the United Nations' European headquarters.

The delegations spent Thursday in separate talks with the U.N. and Arab League mediator, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. He said he hoped to get to the point where they would hold direct talks by late Friday.

The two delegations sat in the same room for the first time Wednesday at an international conference on Syria in the nearby Swiss town of Montreux. But that was a big room, with senior officials from more than 40 countries attending. They lamented the humanitarian situation in Syria and spoke in support of one party or the other.

After the Wednesday meeting Brahimi laid out his basic plan. “What we will try to do is talk about how to end this bloody war. We have no illusion that it is going to be easy, but we are going to try very hard," he said.

He said the controversial communique from the first Geneva international meeting 18 months ago would be “a kind of road map". The United States and its allies believe the communique's call for creation of a transitional government means President Assad must step down. But Assad allies, including Russia, said that was not necessary.

Partly for that reason, there has been little progress since the communique was adopted, and fighting has intensified. The United Nations said nearly half of Syria's people were in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Wednesday's meeting served as a platform for the Syrian government and opposition to criticize each other, and they used harsh rhetoric that did not set a positive tone for the direct talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was not surprised. “Opening positions are opening positions. Who knows where they decide to go as this goes on,” he said.

But Kerry indicated there would continue to be important behind-the-scenes efforts by the United State and Russia, regional powers and perhaps others.

“What you see in the direct talks between the opposition and the Assad regime will not be the full measure of effort being expended in order to try to find a solution here,” he said.

No one expects the talks, scheduled to run through Sunday, to produce an agreement to end the war. There is hope for agreements on local ceasefires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner exchanges.

But some experts said the best that could be hoped for is agreement to meet again, which would indicate there is a process in place that could eventually ease suffering in Syria.

Meanwhile, The leader of al-Qaida is calling on rebels in Syria to stop their infighting and focus on the battle against President Bashar al-Assad. This development comes as the U.N. peace envoy met separately with Syrian rebels and the government to try to mediate an end to nearly three years of deadly violence.

Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri delivered the message in an audio recording posted Thursday on websites used by militant groups. His whereabouts are not known and the authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified, though analysts said the voice bore a resemblance to the al-Qaida leader.

Al-Qaida-linked insurgents have clashed in recent weeks with other rebel groups fighting against the Syrian government.