After a week of talks at the United Nations headquarters in
Geneva, the opposing sides in Syria's civil war were still stuck on
the question of how to proceed. Friday's closing session was
expected to be largely ceremonial, with government and opposition
delegates expected to meet again around February 10.
"I hope that in the next session, when we come back, we will be able
to have a more structured discussion," mediator Lakhdar Brahimi
He was "very, very disappointed" that a U.N. aid convoy was still
waiting fruitlessly to enter the rebel-held Old City of Homs, where
the United States says civilians are starving.
U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke said negotiations were still under way
with both sides on the ground to try to get the aid convoy through:
"Unfortunately, I have just received an update that there is no
movement on that convoy as of this morning."
With no achievements on substance, diplomats say the priority now is
just to keep the talks process going in the hope that hardline
positions can be modified over time.
The first meeting between President Bashar al-Assad's government and
foes in three years of war began last week with an international
conference at which both sides set out firm positions from which
they never yielded. The talks repeatedly seemed on the verge of
collapse before they began, and just getting the delegates to sit in
the same room was deemed an achievement.
The sides took a first tentative step forward on Wednesday by
agreeing to use a 2012 document as a basis for discussions, but it
was soon clear that they were still at odds.
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.
But the sides quickly shifted back to their disputes. The government
delegation accused the opposition of supporting terrorism for
refusing to sign up to a resolution opposing it.
"We presented a proposal that the two sides might agree on the
importance of combating violence and terrorism. The other side
rejected it because they are involved in the issue of terrorism,"
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said.
Damascus uses the word "terrorist" to describe all rebel fighters;
Western countries have declared some Islamist groups among the
rebels, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to
be terrorists but consider others to be legitimate fighters in the
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The 2012 agenda adopted for the talks sets out stages to end the
conflict, including a halt to fighting, delivery of aid and setting
up a transitional government, which the opposition and its foreign
allies say must exclude President Bashar al-Assad.
While the opposition wants to address the transitional body first,
the government says the first step is to discuss terrorism. U.S. and
Russian officials, co-sponsors of the conference, have been in
Geneva respectively advising the opposition and government
The 2012 agenda was drawn up at a time when Western countries mainly
believed Assad's days were numbered. But the past year has seen his
position improve on the ground and diplomatically. Meanwhile,
carnage has continued, with nearly a third of Syria's 22 million
people driven from their homes and sectarian violence spreading to
neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.
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 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.
"The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind
in delivering these chemical weapons precursor materials on time
with the schedule that was agreed to," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva;
additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Geneva, Oliver Holmes and
Stephen Kalin in Beirut and Missy Ryan in Warsaw; editing by Peter
Graff and Giles Elgood)
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