GENEVA — The first face-to-face meeting between Syria’s government and the opposition hoping to overthrow Bashar Assad started and ended after barely a half-hour Saturday, with the two sides facing each other silently as a UN mediator split the distance between them and laid the groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war.
After tense days spent avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad’s handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition gathered briefly at a single U-shaped table, then emerged and went separate ways, using different doors to avert contact.
Only the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, spoke, according to Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition’s representatives.
The two sides were distant going into the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing less. Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that left 130,000 people dead.
“Today we shall start with modest ideas and we will build on them to achieve something and we move gradually to bigger and bigger issues,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad said going into the meeting.
Al-Abdeh said the antagonists would face each other again later Saturday but would only address Brahimi, not each other. First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs, which has been under government siege for more than a year and where reports of starvation deaths have emerged.
It was very difficult to “sit at the table with the killers,” al-Abdeh said.
The first day of peace talks in Geneva stumbled, with the regime threatening to walk out. However, after meeting with both sides, UN-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Friday they had agreed to “meet in the same room”.
Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the delegations had been due to sit down early Friday at UN headquarters in Geneva for their first direct talks.
But that plan fell apart after the opposition insisted the regime must be prepared to discuss Assad leaving power.
“We never expected this to be easy,” Brahimi told reporters, adding that “I think the two parties understand what is at stake.”
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had earlier warned Brahimi that the Syrian delegation would leave Geneva if no “serious sessions” took place Saturday.
Still, Brahimi appeared confident no one would be immediately quitting the talks, insisting that “both parties are going to be here tomorrow and they will be meeting.”
The talks have yet to touch on concrete issues.
“We have not discussed the core matters yet,” Brahimi said, adding: “we hope that both parties will give concessions that will be to the benefit of the process.”
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad blamed the opposition for obstructing Friday’s talks.
Nazir al-Hakim, a member of the opposition National Coalition’s delegation, told AFP it would only accept negotiations based on the agreement reached at the “Geneva I” peace conference in 2012, which called for the creation of a transitional government.
“We need guarantees that Geneva I will be discussed,” he said.
The regime has said it supports Geneva I, but rejects the opposition’s contention that the agreement requires Assad to go.
Brahimi admitted there were “some differences on the interpretation” of parts of the document, saying he hoped the talks would help “clarify the ambiguity.”
Talks to touch on ‘siege of Homs’
Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the Geneva II discussions, which are expected to last about a week.
At the World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the agreement on Saturday’s meeting as “a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process.”
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.
Opposition Coalition official Ahmad Ramadan told AFP talks on Saturday and Sunday would focus on the central city of Homs, where hundreds of families are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
“We will talk exclusively about… how to put an end to the siege of Homs, ensuring humanitarian corridors to besieged areas and stopping the regime’s bombing and killing,” Ramadan said.
The start of the conference in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday was marked by fiery exchanges, with Muallem labelling the opposition “traitors” and agents of foreign governments.
Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
Pitting Assad’s regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.