Syria foes to meet face-to-face at peace talks after rocky start
Syrian government side rejects demand to sign up to transitional government statement
Protesters against the Syrian government demonstrate outside the UN building in Geneva as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi holds talks today with a Syrian government delegation led by Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters
The Syrian government and its opponents will hold their first joint meeting tomorrow 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 today, 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 this afternoon their argument, which centres on whether or not Dr Assad would have to step down, had been put to one side.
“Tomorrow we have agreed that we shall meet in the same room,” Mr Brahimi told a news conference. The negotiations would be based on the 2012 statement, known as Geneva 1, which he acknowledged was subject to differing interpretations.
Mr Brahimi made clear the talks, scheduled to last another week, would not be easy. “We do expect some bumps on the road,” he said. “We wanted these delegations nominated months ago to prepare things better.”
Diplomats are playing down any hopes of progress.
“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.”
Mr 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.
Syria’s civil war has already resulted in the deaths of at least 130,000 people, driven more than 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 Dr Assad would be traitors.
Dr Assad’s main regional backer, Iran, is also not represented at the Geneva talks. UN 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.
Iran, accused by western leaders of backing Lebanese Hizbullah militia who have helped Dr Assad reverse rebel advances, today called for an end to foreign interference in Syria, where arms and funds have flowed in from a range of countries.
Fighters from Iraq and elsewhere are also present in a conflict that has become a proxy war for regional powers.
“I can ask all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria, to allow the Syrian people to decide their own future. To stop funnelling money and arms into Syria,” Syrian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu also called for the withdrawal of all forces from Syria, including Hizbullah fighters who are backing Dr Assad. “Turkey wants all non-Syrians to leave Syria today, be it Hizbullah or others,” he said.