Sides edge towards direct talks on Syria after mediation

UN meetings lay groundwork for further talks with delegations this morning

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met Syrian government and opposition delegations separately in Geneva yesterday to lay the groundwork for talks on how to end the conflict in their country following the fractious "Geneva II" international conference in Montreux.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem has reiterated his government's demand that priority should be given to the fight against "terrorism", the insurgency, and dismissed calls for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down, while the opposition resents the "terrorist" label and argues that its priority is ousting Dr Assad.

Opposition head Ahmed Jarba said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told him that Moscow, a main ally of Dr Assad, "is not holding on to [him]".

In spite of the tense atmosphere, Haitham Maleh of the expatriate opposition National Coalition said his delegation had no intention of leaving.


He said talks with UN mediator Mr Brahimi proceeded as planned yesterday, as Mr Brahimi met in separate rooms with each delegation for about one hour. Mr Brahimi "has no programme. He will listen [to what the sides say] and try to pull each side towards the other," Mr Maleh said. "We will stay to listen and see if there is any possibility to end the situation in Syria. "

Same room
He said they would meet again at 11am today in separate rooms – although the aim of yesterday's discussions was to get the sides into the same room today. Talks could last 7-10 days and go to other rounds if fruitful.

On the table will be the programme laid down by the conference that met in Geneva in June 2012, “Geneva I”, which called for a ceasefire, prisoner releases, and humanitarian access to civilians, followed by the creation of a transitional authority with full powers to replace the current government.

However, Mr Maleh – an 83-year-old dissident who spent many years in prison – made it clear that the coalition will not consider any arrangements that will leave Dr Assad in power.

“We will leave no place for them [the leading regime figures] to escape punishment and we will go back to Syria to create courts” to deal with others, he said.

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union, the most powerful Kurdish faction in the country, has protested over its exclusion from the talks. The union has demanded representation independent of the coalition.

Union leader Saleh Muslim said, “Some forces are trying to exclude us from the settlements they are seeking, and they’re not representing anybody [in Syria itself]” – a charge laid against the coalition although it has backing from regional and international powers.

Al-Qaeda central leader Ayman al-Zawahri has called on rebels in Syria to stop fighting each other as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a local franchise, expelled rival rebel groups from a northern town. Al-Zawahiri urged insurgents to form a committee to deal with their differences and unite in the struggle against the government.

Radical fundamentalists
He called on all radical fundamentalist factions "seeking to overthrow Assad . . . to seek an immediate end to fighting between brothers in jihad and Islam". He warned against accusing rival fundamentalist groups of "apostasy" if they do not agree with the ideas of al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Some 1,400 people, including 190 civilians, have died in insurgent infighting over the past three weeks, the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times