Darkening the atmosphere further, the United States and Russia
clashed over the pace of Syria's handover of chemical arms for
destruction. Washington accused Damascus of foot-dragging that put
the plan weeks behind schedule, and Moscow — President Bashar
al-Assad's big power ally — rejected this.
The Obama administration said it was working with partners to
ratchet up pressure on Syria to accelerate the process, but stopped
short of threatening any action if Damascus did not get the chemical
weapons deliveries back on track.
The Russian government said Assad was acting "in good faith" in
carrying out last year's international chemical disarmament
agreement and a June 30 deadline for eliminating the poison gas
agents remains viable.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who has tirelessly pursued a peace
deal that other diplomats consider "mission impossible", said the
opposition delegation would be back on February 10, but President
Bashar al-Assad's delegates had told him they would have to check
with Damascus before agreeing to return.
"They didn't tell me that they are thinking of not coming. On the
contrary, they said that they would come but they needed to check
with their capital," Brahimi told a news conference.
Brahimi listed 10 simple points that he felt the two sides agreed on
in the talks and said he thought there was more common ground than
the sides recognized.
But neither side has budged an inch from their main positions: the
opposition wants the talks to focus on a transitional administration
it says will remove Assad from power; the government wants to talk
about fighting "terrorism" — a word it uses to refer to all its
"Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an
acceptible manner," Brahimi said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem blamed the lack of tangible
results on what he called the immaturity and narrow composition of
the opposition delegation and their "threats to implode" the talks,
as well as blatant U.S. interference.
"There are huge divides between (the opposition delegation)and what
happening on the ground in Syria. They are not in touch with what is
taking place in Syria ... and have no control over anybody on
ground," Moulem told reporters.
The Friends of Syria, an alliance of mainly Western and Gulf Arab
states that back Assad's foes, faulted the Syrian government for the
lack of diplomatic headway.
"The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the
first round of negotiations. It must not further obstruct
substantial negotiations and it must engage constructively in the
second round of negotiations," they said in a statement.
U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the Syrian
government "continues to play games" with its non-committal stance
to future talks while the opposition had shown it was serious in
pledging to return to the table.
"The people of Syria are watching and will determine who truly has
their best interests at heart. The Syrian people — who have suffered
so much — deserve constructive engagement now and in the next
round," Vazquez said.
Expectations had always been low for a breakthrough on political
issues at the talks, the first between Assad's representatives and
his foes in an almost three-year-old conflagration that has killed
130,000 Syrians and driven a third of the population from their
The sides could not even achieve more modest goals, such as an
agreement to allow aid convoys into Homs, Syria's third-largest
city, where thousands of civilians are trapped with no access to
food or medicine.
"Homs was extensively discussed, although unfortunately there has
been no breakthrough yet," Brahimi said.
[to top of second column]
Underscoring the relentlessness of the carnage, the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said
1,870 people had been killed during the week of talks, including 450
civilians and 40 who died from inadequate access to food and
medicine in areas besieged by government troops.
With few achievements on substance, diplomats say the priority now
is just to keep the talks process going in the hope that rigid
positions can be modified over time.
Brahimi inherited the arduous challenge of convening talks from
former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who bowed out in 2012
saying the job was impossible as long as global powers were at odds.
Since then, the task has only grown more difficult and the war
bloodier and more fragmented.
Assad's forces have recaptured territory, reducing pressure on him
to compromise. Western states that once brandished the threat of
intervening against him abandoned such plans last year. The
insurgents have become increasingly divided and Islamic militants
have gained power on the ground — they refused to attend the talks.
The United Nations invited Assad's main Middle East ally Iran at the
last minute, then reversed and revoked the offer.
The talks began with hardline speeches at a conference last week and
repeatedly seemed on the verge of collapse before the two sides even
entered the same room. Just getting them there was deemed an
Still, the sides took a first tentative step forward on Wednesday by
agreeing to use a 2012 document as a basis for discussions.
Thursday's final negotiating session began with a rare gesture of
harmony when all sides observed a minute's silence for the 130,000
people killed during the war.
"All stood up for the souls of the martyrs. Symbolically it was
good," opposition delegate Ahmad Jakal told Reuters.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS DELAY
Last year saw Washington abandon plans for strikes to punish
Damascus for using chemical weapons, ending more than two years of
speculation that the West might join the war against Assad as it did
against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Instead, Assad agreed to
give up his poison gas stocks, a complicated process that has fallen
6-8 weeks behind schedule.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Syria had given up less than 5
percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss a deadline
next week to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that Syria had no
excuse for the delays and urged it to move "very rapidly" to allow
them to be shipped out of the country.
Russia rejected the U.S. accusations and blamed security on the road
to the Mediterranean coast for the delays.
"We see that the Syrians are approaching the fulfillment of their
obligations seriously and in good faith," Russian Foreign Ministry
official Mikhail Ulyanov was quoted as saying by Interfax news
agency. "Our American partners, in their usual manner, are betting
on pressure even in those cases where there is absolutely no need
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Geneva, Lesley Wroughton
in Berlin, Oliver Holmes and Stephen Kalin in Beirut, Missy Ryan in
Warsaw and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; editing by Peter Graff and
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