GENEVA — UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met Syria’s warring sides behind closed doors Thursday to lay the groundwork for direct talks after the first day of a peace conference ended in bitter exchanges.
Brahimi met separately with delegations from Syria’s opposition and then President Bashar Assad’s regime in Geneva before full talks are due to resume on Friday.
It was unclear after the meetings whether the two sides would agree to hold face-to-face talks or if mediators would shuttle between them.
After meeting with Brahimi, opposition chief Ahmad Jarba said the regime had become a “political corpse”.
“The world is now sure that Assad cannot stay and will not stay,” he said.
Jarba said that he had been assured by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow was not inextricably linked to the Syrian president.
“We met Lavrov in Paris last week and he confirmed to me that Russia is not holding on to Assad,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Jarba claimed that Russia’s top diplomat told him that a solution should be negotiated “between Syrians themselves through a political process.”
A senior US State Department official said Brahimi was due to meet with both sides again on Friday morning with the goal of having them in the same room by the afternoon.
“He hopes to have them at the table tomorrow and we’ll see what happens,” the official said. “We knew this would not be an easy process.”
The UN-sponsored conference — the biggest diplomatic effort yet to resolve Syria’s devastating civil war — opened in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday with heated disagreements among the two sides and world powers.
Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the conference, which officials have said could last up to 10 days, but diplomats believe that simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is a mark of some progress and could be an important first step.
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be looking for short-term deals to keep the process moving forward. They could include localized ceasefires, freer humanitarian aid access or prisoner exchanges.
Brahimi said he “had indications” from both sides that they were willing to discuss these issues.
Hadi Al-Bahra, a member of the opposition National Coalition’s delegation, told AFP the opposition felt it had benefitted from the regime’s aggressive tone at the start of the conference Wednesday.
“We have heard very positive feedback from inside Syria and it is the first time we’ve felt so much support from Syrians for the Coalition,” Bahra said.
In a vehement attack during his opening speech that went long beyond his alloted time, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accused the opposition of being “traitors” and agents of foreign governments.
The regime delegation behaved “like the mafia, with a style very far from diplomacy,” Bahra said.
Syrian state media slammed the Montreux conference, with the Tishreen daily charging that most of the speeches from the more than 40 nations and international bodies present had lobbed “dishonest accusations… at the Syrian government”.
“The imposters were unmasked. They spoke out in favour of terrorism while making speeches about justice and human rights,” the Al-Thawra daily chimed in.
The opposition arrived in Switzerland with a sole aim — toppling Assad — while the regime says any talk of removing the Syrian leader is a “red line” it will not cross.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged the two sides at the conference to finally work together to save lives.
“The world wants an urgent end to the conflict,” Ban said in his closing press conference. “Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate.”
Notably absent from the Montreux conference was crucial Assad backer Iran, after Ban reversed a last-minute invitation when the opposition said it would boycott if Tehran took part.
In the Swiss ski resort of Davos on Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said elections would be the best way to end Syria’s civil war.
“The best solution is to organize free and fair elections inside Syria,” Rouhani told the World Economic Forum. “No outside party or power should decide for the Syrian people and Syria as a country.”
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 the homes.
Pitting Assad’s regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.
Shiite Iran and its Lebanese militia ally Hezbollah have backed Assad; the mainly Sunni Arab Gulf states have supported the opposition; and the violence has often spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.
Sectarian clashes linked to Syria’s war have killed 10 people in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli over the past six days alone, a security official said Thursday.
Much of the fighting inside Syria in recent weeks has been between opposition forces themselves, as rebel groups combined to attack bases of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an Al-Qaeda linked group.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri late Wednesday called for a halt to the clashes, which according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have killed nearly 1,400 people since January 3.
In an audio message posted on the Internet he urged “every free person in Syria seeking to overthrow Assad… to seek an end to fighting between brothers in jihad and Islam immediately”.