GENEVA — The ice is slowly breaking in peace talks between Syria’s warring sides, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday, warning though that no substantive results were expected during this round.
“The ice is breaking, slowly, but it is breaking,” Brahimi told reporters after a fifth day of talks in Geneva, which both sides described as “positive.”
He acknowledged he did not expect “anything substantive” to come out of the initial round, which is set to conclude Friday.
But he stressed that simply getting the parties talking for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011 was an important step forward.
“These people have not sat together for three years. They do not expect that there’ll be a magic wand,” Brahimi said, insisting he was “not disappointed.”
The delegations from President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition National Coalition are set to determine Friday when they will return to Geneva, likely after a week, Brahimi said.
“I hope that the second session will be more structured and hopefully more productive than the first session,” he said.
Opposition delegation spokesman Louay Safi told reporters the future talks would need to show “substantial progress.”
“We’re not going to stay here month after month just talking without progress,” he said.
Yet after days of total deadlock, both sides voiced a grain of optimism Wednesday, saying the talks had been “positive”.
The discussions had finally focused on the Geneva I communique — the never-implemented roadmap to peace put out by global powers during talks here in 2012 — but the two sides disagree sharply on what part of the text the talks should focus on.
“Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body,” Safi said.
The opposition says creating the transitional government called for in the Geneva I communique must be the first step towards a political solution, and insists this will require Assad to leave power.
The regime denies the text requires Assad to step down and says his role is not up for debate at this conference.
Regime delegation member Buthaina Shaaban also said talks Wednesday had been “positive”, but said this was “because they spoke about (fighting) terrorism.”
She stressed that the first item in the Geneva text was related to ending the violence in Syria, something the regime largely equates to rooting out the “terrorism” it claims the opposition and its foreign backers are supporting.
“We want to discuss Geneva I item by item, starting from the first item,” she said, accusing the opposition of focusing on the transitional government in a bid to grab power.
Washington, Moscow must ‘use their influence’
The two sides have been brought together in Geneva in the biggest diplomatic push yet to end a civil war that has left more than 130,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
Brahimi stressed Wednesday that “the gap between them is quite large,” calling on Washington and Moscow, which instigated the talks, to “use their influence with the parties.”
“They are using their capacity to convince, which is more than my capacity to convince,” he said.
The opposition is also planning to soon meet with Russian officials in Moscow, spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati told AFP, maintaining there had been “an easing in the Russian position on Syria.”
No progress was meanwhile apparent towards fulfilling the only tangible promise of the Geneva talks so far: Brahimi’s announcement Sunday the regime had agreed to allow women and children safe passage from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs.
The Old City of Homs has been under siege since June 2012 after rebels there rose against the regime, with an estimated 3,000 people living with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
UN bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they are on standby with aid but are waiting for approval to move in.
Syrian government forces meanwhile dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held districts of Aleppo, killing 13 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It took months of pressure from Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, Assad’s key international ally and arms supplier, to bring the two sides together.
Their efforts also secured a landmark deal last year to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Sources close to the world’s chemical watchdog however said Wednesday that less than five percent of the around 700 tons of chemicals that were supposed to have left Syria by December 31 last year have done so.
And in yet another reminder of the urgency of bringing Syria’s bloody civil war to an end, US intelligence said Wednesday that Damascus may now be capable of producing biological weapons.