GENEVA — Negotiators from the Syrian government and opposition are meeting together for the first time with the United Nations and Arab League mediator in Geneva, after the process nearly broke down on Friday.
It was an achievement for veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi just to get the two delegations into the same room. Even so, it is not clear whether they will speak directly to each other, or whether the 80-year-old mediator will have to shuttle back and forth between them.
Brahimi said Friday that the first meeting would tackle procedural issues, for what he hopes will be a full week of talks.
But the two sides differ sharply not only in their positions but even on what to talk about. The government wants to talk about ending what it calls 'terrorism,' a reference to rebel attacks. The opposition says it will only talk about the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There have also been proposals to discuss local cease-fires, access for humanitarian aid and possibly prisoner exchanges.
Brahimi laid out his expectations on Friday.
"We are going to talk about access. We are going to talk about, you know, ending violence," said Brahimi. "But I think it’s very clear to both sides that the meat, really, for this conference is the how to implement the dispositions in the Geneva Communiqué."
That communiqué was agreed to by the international community at the first Geneva conference on Syria 18 months ago. But its call for a “transitional” government is vague, leaving Assad and his supporters to claim he could lead it, while the opposition and its supporters say he must go.
U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the opposition demonstrated "a seriousness of purpose" in Geneva and went to the meeting "with the intention to engage constructively."
Another U.S. official, speaking on background, said as innocent civilians die in Syria, the regime continues to play games.
While these talks move slowly at best, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated there are other efforts going on behind the scenes. He would not be specific.
But Middle East expert Ken Sofer at Washington's Center for American Progress says the United States and Russia may be making more progress toward a framework for a Syrian political settlement than the Syrian parties are.
“I think they're starting to get closer to an idea of what a political transition would look like that would remove Assad from power but leave in a lot of the kind of state institutions in play in Syria," said Sofer. "From there, what you need to do is to expand that conversation to countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Iran, Qatar, Turkey, the countries that are supporting both sides of the civil war and try to get them to kind of buy into a political deal.”
That will be a long process, leaving millions of Syrians still caught in the nearly three-year-long war. But at least it is a process.
On Friday, the opposition had refused to talk about anything other than Assad's departure and the government delegation had threatened to leave town. With talks actually happening, diplomats hope for confidence building measures that could start what is expected to be a long, slow and difficult path to peace.