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Syrian Talks Begin in Geneva

  • Al Pessin

Representatives from the Syrian government and the Western-backed opposition have begun their first-ever joint meeting aimed at resolving nearly three years of civil war.

The United Nations confirmed Saturday that both sides sat down "in the same room" with the Joint Special Representative in the U.N. office in Geneva.

Syria's government had threatened to walk out of peace talks with the opposition if the two sides did not begin what it called "serious sessions" by Saturday. The opposition has said it will not negotiate directly with the Syrian government unless it agrees to discuss the departure of President Bashar al-Assad.

Damascus has refused, accusing the rebels of supporting terrorism.

The United Nations and Arab League mediator, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi made the announcement Friday that talks would begin after two days of meeting separately with the two sides.

Brahimi went so far as to describe his talks with the government and opposition delegations as “encouraging.”

That was surprising at the end of a day during which the Syrian foreign minister threatened to leave if serious talks did not start by Saturday, and the opposition threatened not to hold direct talks unless the government accepted what is called the Geneva 1 communique, which is supposed to be the basis for these talks.

That document, negotiated by the international community 18 months ago, calls for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria.

The Geneva II Talks

  • Delegates gather in Montreux, Switzerland on Jan. 22
  • Talks move to Geneva on Jan. 24 and will be facilitated by Lakhdar Brahimi
  • Syrian government delegation is led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.
  • Opposition delegation is led by Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba

The opposition and its allies, including the United States and other western powers, say that means Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office. He and his allies, including Russia and Iran, disagree.

Brahimi acknowledged what he called the differences of interpretation but said both sides accept that this process is based on the communique.

He said they will also likely discuss other issues, including improved access for humanitarian aid. But he said the focus will be on getting a broader settlement to the nearly three-year-long war.

“The huge ambition of this process is to save Syria, no less than that," he said. "So I hope that all three parties – the government, the opposition and the United Nations – will be up to the task.”

Brahimi also called on the two sides' backers in the international community to “do their share” to support the negotiations.

He said he expects the talks to continue through next week, and then to break for the delegations to consult with their leadership.

Analysts have predicted difficulties in the talks, particularly after the acrimonious start to this process on Wednesday, when the Syrian foreign minister and opposition leader made combative statements at an international conference in nearby Montreux.

The acrimony is making it difficult to do what U.S., Russian and U.N. officials want the negotiators to do - start to build trust by talking about local cease-fires, prisoner exchanges and the opening of humanitarian aid corridors.

But that seemed a remote prospect after Friday's rocky start to the day's talks, leaving no new hope for an end to nearly three years of bloodshed or for help for some nine million Syrians who the U.N. says are in dire need of help.

“Both Syrian sides have got very different objectives going into it, said Syria expert David Butter of London's Chatham House, who sees little prospect for significant progress during this round of talks.

"And also, it's in a context where you can't really see either party to the internal conflict actually having any sort of decisive advantage, which would be the basis of some sort of bargaining process,” he added.

Still, there is hope that if they can get past the posturing of recent days. the two sides will find it in their interests to at least start a process here.

And diplomats indicate that their key supporters - the United States and Russia - will be keeping the pressure on to do just that.

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