Syrian talks to begin in earnest

Brahimi achieves major breakthrough in bringing both sides face to face

UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi giving a press conference in Geneva. Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Epa

UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi giving a press conference in Geneva. Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Epa

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:05

After a period of uncertainty and threats from both sides to depart, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi announced yesterday that the government and opposition delegations involved in “Geneva II” peace talks would be meeting in the same room today.

This was a major breakthrough: he has so far been compelled to meet the delegations separately, although face-to-face talks had been scheduled for yesterday.

Looking weary but cheerful, Mr Brahimi said he was “looking forward to tomorrow morning and afternoon”. He expected talks to continue on Sunday and through the week. He said he had “encouraging discussions” but warned that “it is not an easy process.”

In spite of the demand by the expatriate opposition National Coalition that the government be compelled to sign the Geneva peace plan of June 2012, “Geneva I,” Mr Brahimi said both sides “understand that the talks are based” on this document.

It consists of two sections: a six-point plan to reduce violence and settle humanitarian issues and a proposal for the creation of a transitional authority with full executive powers which will draft a constitution and hold elections. Work on the second section is meant to begin once peace and stability are restored in Syria.

While the government has agreed to “Geneva I,” it insists the fight against “terrorism,” referring to insurgents and fundamentalists, should be given priority. On this, Mr Brahimi said, “Nobody wants terrorism to continue except the terrorists. If we save Syria, we will save it from the terrorists.”

The coalition delegation will be led by its chief negotiator rather than head Ahmed Jarba, Mr Brahimi revealed. Mr Jarba will, apparently, be in a back room consulting with advisers and briefing the team at the table.

“We have not discussed core issues yet, we hope to do so soon,” Mr Brahimi said. This could begin today once ground rules are finalised.

It is likely they will begin with the imposition of local ceasefires and providing humanitarian access rather than the most challenging issue: the fate of president Bashar al-Assad. The government insists he remain in power during the transition while the opposition argues he must leave.

In conclusion Mr Brahimi said, “We do expect some bumps on the road” to a settlement. “The huge ambition of this project is to save Syria. I hope that all three parties – the opposition, the government and the United Nations – will be up to the task.”

Outside the main gate of the UN compound, several hundred Syrian supporters of the opposition demonstrated throughout the day.

Walid and Ruru, Syrians originally from Homs but living in Italy, took part in the protest. Walid said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “has to go. He is a dictator, not a president . . . We want people to hold free elections”. Once Dr Assad left power, the war would stop, he said. Neither he nor his wife were convinced the talks should be happening.

In Syria, a shortage of food and medicine has left up to 63 dead in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in the Yarmouk district south of Damascus, reported the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria’s civil war has claimed 100-130,000 lives since it erupted in March 2011.