U.N. Sets Sights on Fresh Syria Talks from February 10 as Jarba Says Arming Opposition Fighters to Continue
The U.N. aims to bring Syria's warring sides back to the negotiating table from February 10, mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Friday, despite a regime vow not to give any ground.
"I suggested we resume, on the basis of an agreed agenda, on February 10," Brahimi told reporters after a week of closed-door negotiations wrapped up.
"The delegation of the opposition agreed to this date. That of the government said they needed to consult with Damascus first."
Getting the rival camps to sit down for the first time in almost three years of fighting has been seen as a triumph in itself for Brahimi, a veteran peacemakers.
"Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner," Brahimi said. "This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build."
"The gaps between the sides remain wide. There is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize."
As the foes sought to breach the gaping chasm between them, nearly 1,900 people perished since the start of the talks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday in a stark reminder of the situation on the ground.
The Syrian regime kept a combative tone as the talks with the opposition National Coalition drew to a close.
"Neither in this round, nor in the next will they obtain any concessions from the Syrian delegation," Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told pro-regime demonstrators outside the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva where the talks were held.
"They will not get through politics what they couldn't get through force," Zohbi insisted, as the applauding 250-strong crowd waved a huge Syrian flag and brandished pictures of President Bashar Assad.
Zohbi said his no surrender message was not only for the rebels, whom he accused of "terrorism", but also for their allies in Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon.
Asked about Zohbi's remarks, the 80-year-old Brahimi quipped: "I hope he'll change his mind!"
The Algerian veteran mediator has suggested the talks resume on February 10.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem considered that the week of peace talks has failed to achieve any tangible results.
"I regret to tell you that we have not reached tangible results during this week," he told reporters after the closed-door negotiations wrapped up in Geneva.
Muallem blamed a "lack of maturity and seriousness" on the part of the rival delegation, which he claimed had sought to "implode" the peace negotiations.
"They acted as if we had wanted to come here for one hour and hand over everything to them. It's indicative of the illusions that they are living under," he said.
Muallem said Assad and his government would first read the delegation's report, then make a decision on the next step, with the negotiators returning if the public demanded it.
Both the regime and opposition spar over who truly speaks in the name of Syrians, with the government claiming the rebels are the plaything of the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.
"We represent the concerns and the interests of our people," Muallem insisted.
"We are a country. We have our government, our institutions. We are willing to discuss, but for that we have to know the identity of the other side: are they Syrians or are they not?"
"Geneva I as a communique was formulated in the absence of the Syrians," Muallem said, noting that interpretations of its content diverged.
"The forefront of our concerns is combating terrorism," Muallem added, saying the opposition was "completely detached from what is happening in Syria".
Damascus, pointing to ultra-Islamist Syrian and foreign fighters within the rebel ranks, slaps a "terrorist" label on the opposition, which counters that it is itself fighting the jihadists and claims there is regime complicity with the hardliners.
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba accused the regime of showing no "serious commitment" during a week of peace talks in Geneva that wrapped up Friday.
"We cannot speak about a serious commitment by Assad's representatives," Jarba told reporters after a first round of closed-door negotiations ended with no concrete results.
Jarba confirmed that his National Coalition will take part in a second round of talks.
He stressed though that the opposition's presence in Geneva was conditioned on receiving "the means to defend our people on the ground," according to an official translation of his Arabic speech.
"I can assure you that the pledges made by the states have come into force. The pace of supporting our revolutionaries is quickening, as you may have heard in recent days," he said.
Media reports have this week alleged that the U.S. Congress had secretly approved funding for weapons deliveries to "moderate" Syrian rebel factions.
Washington has not confirmed the information and has dismissed accusations that it supports terrorism as "ludicrous".
Jarba, who headed the delegation but not the negotiating team in Geneva, said it had not been easy sitting down with regime representatives for the first time.
"We felt like we were drinking from a poisoned chalice while the criminal (Assad) was killing our women, children, young men and women and elderly," he said.
"The only consolation that we had was that the regime which had been oppressing us for more than 50 years had arrived in Geneva to dig its own grave with its own hands," he said, insisting that the talks marked "the beginning of the end," for Assad.
It took months of pressure from Syria's ally Russia, and Washington, which backs the opposition, to bring the two sides together.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi said Friday that the regime had been forced to negotiate.
"The fact that the regime has been forced to come to Geneva -- this is the result of the fighting of the Syrian people," Safi told reporters
Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 after a regime crackdown on peaceful Arab Spring-inspired protests.
It morphed into a sectarian-tinged civil war which has to date claimed over 130,000 lives and driven millions from their homes, sparking a devastating humanitarian crisis.
"The regime started this armed conflict. The protests were peaceful, had the regime responded peacefully there would have been no conflict," said Safi.
Brahimi said that despite a difficult start, the talks had got down to specifics.
"This week we started to discuss the specific areas of the cessation of violence in all its forms, including the fight against terrorism, and the transitional governing body exercising full executive powers."
The two sides agree that they must beat terrorism -- but not on what it is.
Damascus, pointing to groups of ultra-Islamist Syrian and foreign fighters within the rebel ranks, has slapped a "terrorist" label on the broader opposition -- which counters that it is itself fighting the jihadists, claims there is regime complicity with the hardliners, and underscores the role of Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hizbullah on the Assad side.
Brahimi noted that the talks ended with no breakthrough in addressing the desperate humanitarian situation in the country.
He earlier said he was "very, very disappointed" that no progress had been made towards fulfilling the only tangible promise to emerge from the talks: the regime's promise to allow women and children safe passage from rebel-held areas of Homs that have been besieged since June 2012.
Despite a large gap between the warring parties, Brahimi said Friday they shared more common ground than they realized.
He said both were committed to finding a political solution based on the never-implemented roadmap to peace set out by world powers at a 2012 conference in Geneva."Both sides understand that the conflict in their country has imposed immense and unacceptable suffering on the Syrian people. Both sides recognize the urgent need to bring the violence to an end."
But the two sides disagree over who is to blame and what the political solution should be.
The opposition insists that the 2012 plan requires Assad to step down -- something flatly rejected by the regime.
Jarba is set to attend the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, then travel to Russia in a bid to rally support.