Syria threatens to walk out of peace talks
KHALED YACOUB OWEIS AND MARIAM KAROUNY
The Syrian government and its opponents will hold their first joint meeting on Saturday (local time) to launch peace talks aimed at resolving nearly three years of civil war, after negotiations almost collapsed before they started.
The face-to-face meeting had been planned for Friday, but the opposition said early on it would not meet the government side unless it first agreed to sign up to a 2012 statement by world powers calling for a transitional government in Syria.
The government rejected the demand and said its negotiators would leave unless serious talks began within a day.
Even if the talks appear be back on track, few expect the conference to come up with an overall political settlement to the war, given the absence from Geneva of powerful Islamist opposition groups and President Bashar al-Assad's ally, Iran.
After separate meetings with government and opposition delegations, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi indicated on Friday afternoon the argument had been put on one side.
"Tomorrow we have agreed that we shall meet in same room," Brahimi told a news conference. "The discussions I had with the two parties were encouraging."
The negotiations would be based the 2012 statement, known as Geneva 1, he said, while adding, "there are different interpretations on some of those items".
"I think the two sides understand that very well and accept it," Brahimi said.
Another week of talks is scheduled, but diplomats are playing down any hopes of progress.
"The objective is for the first round of talks to last until next Friday, but expectations are so low we'll see how things develop day by day," a Western diplomat said.
"Every day that they talk is a little step forward."
Brahimi has indicated that his aim is to start by seeking practical steps, like local ceasefires, prisoner releases and access for international aid deliveries, before embarking on the tougher political negotiations. But even those narrow aims would fail if the delegations go home.
Syria's civil war has already killed at least 130,000 people, driven up to a third of the country's 22 million people from their homes and made half dependent on aid, including hundreds of thousands cut off by fighting.
Among the hurdles to progress, the Islamist militants who control most rebel-held territory are boycotting the talks and say anyone attending negotiations that fail to bring down Assad would be traitors.
Assad's main regional backer, Iran, is also not represented at the Geneva talks. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Tehran at the last minute, but then withdrew the invitation 24 hours later when it refused to endorse the Geneva 1 protocol.
During the opening ceremony, the government delegation drew a rebuke from Ban for using inflammatory language after referring in a speech to rebels raping dead women, ripping foetuses from the womb and eating human organs.
In a defiant speech yesterday, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said the international community had concluded that Assad cannot stay in power.
"We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now," he said.
"Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead."