Syrian government says it is ready to discuss transitional authority

Gap between sides very large, says Brahimi, but ice is breaking slowly

 Louay Safi, Spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, briefs the media at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph: EPA

Louay Safi, Spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, briefs the media at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph: EPA

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 01:00

The deadlock at the Geneva II peace talks was broken yesterday when the Syrian government declared its “full readiness” to discuss the creation of a transitional authority under the June 2012 peace plan, “Geneva I”.

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said discussions had focused on “what each side expects” from the transitional authority and the failure, so far, of the effort to deliver humanitarian aid to and evacuate women and children from the besieged insurgent-held old city of Homs.

Diplomats in New York have reportedly said that if there is no progress on Homs the UN Security Council could be asked to intervene.

Mr Brahimi said that “the gap between [the sides] is very large” and substantive progress could not be expected in this round, which concludes tomorrow. He said “the ice is breaking slowly but is it breaking” between people who “have not met once before”, and he hoped the second session, in a week, would be “more structured and more productive”.

He urged the US and Russia, as allies of the opposition and government respectively, to press for progress and consult with each other on how to achieve movement.

Opposition spokesman Louay Safi said: “We had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, to end dictatorship and end the fighting and misery in Syria.”

He added that the government was now prepared to discuss the size, responsibilities and timeframe of the transitional authority.

However, Mr Safi said that while they had agreed that Geneva I was the basis of the talks, the government “wants the transitional governing body to be discussed at the end [while] we want it at the beginning”.

Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said there was agreement on using the plan as the basis for talks, but with qualifications. She said Mr Brahimi had promised to discuss “terrorism” today because “stopping terrorism is the first issue that should be handled”.

Damascus has sent letters to the UN Security Council and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon calling for the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front and the Mujahideen Army to be designated as “terrorist” groups along with the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Geneva plan
The first part of the Geneva plan calls for the cessation of violence, release of detainees, humanitarian access to areas affected by fighting, and evacuation of civilians and wounded.

The second part, to be “implemented in a climate of safety, . . . stability and calm”, involves the formation “on the basis of mutual consent” of a neutral “transitional governing body [that] would exercise full executive powers” and include members of the government, the opposition and other groups. The authority would oversee the drafting of a constitution and elections.

British prime minister David Cameron has agreed to offer a temporary “home in our country” to 500 of the “most needy” three million Syrian refugees, “particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence” and torture.