As the sun set on what was supposed to be the first full day of Syrian peace talks in Geneva on Friday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy to Syria, announced that negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) would begin Saturday, putting a fragile pause on fears that the conference would collapse before talks even began.
The Western-backed SNC opposition group refused to sit down with the regime delegation Friday until its enemies formally agreed to a transitional government without Assad at its helm — the stipulation that has foiled all previous attempts to resolve Syria's nearly three-year civil war. And Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, in turn, threatened that his delegation would walk out on Saturday.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage the conference, Brahimi met with both sides separately Friday afternoon, and it appeared he was successful.
"Tomorrow we have agreed that we shall meet in the same room," Brahimi told reporters, adding that both sides accepted the principles of the 2012 Geneva communique, which called for a transitional government to be set up.
The SNC, which has operated in exile from Istanbul throughout the war and has often failed to see eye to eye with rebel groups fighting the war, might actually have quite a bit to gain from the talks. Taking a hard line with the regime on Assad's resignation — as the delegation did Friday — could bolster the coalition's waning legitimacy on the ground in Syria.
The regime, meanwhile, has used Geneva as a platform for painting the uprising as a "terrorist" insurrection, steering the debate away from how and when Assad might step down while lobbying for international support to combat the Al-Qaeda-linked factions among the anti-Assad movement.
"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," Foreign Minister Muallem said Wednesday, referencing material support for the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) coming from the U.S. and its allies. Kerry has also reiterated Assad must resign.
"Syrians here in this hall participated in all that has happened. They implemented, facilitated the bloodshed, and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent," he added in a jab at the SNC.
But that line could prove unsustainable, analysts say, underlining the true value of the Geneva talks: By attending the conference, the regime has agreed to negotiate with "terrorists," something most governments refuse to do. It has, for the first time, inadvertently acknowledged that the SNC might be a legitimate political body with a role to play in Syria's future.
"Today, both sides sat in the same room for the first time since the war began," Kerry noted during preliminary speeches on Wednesday, even as both sides flung vitriolic accusations of mass murder.
The firestorm and political theater surrounding Friday's stalemate belie the small victories already achieved in Geneva. The two warring sides, pressured by the U.S. and Russia and not wishing to be viewed domestically as the obstacle to peace, may have formally — if reluctantly — begun the diplomatic wrangling that some are terming a "peace process."
Still, Syrians shouldn't hold their breath, said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London. A quick glance back at a drawn-out civil war in the Balkans reveals that Syria may have months — or years — of violence ahead before a truce is called.
"At successful peace conferences of the past, such as the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War, all sides were utterly exhausted by war, and driven by that exhaustion to seek compromises," Joshi wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera. "In Syria, such conditions do not prevail."
The vast and disjointed array of fighters who have invested everything in the uprising to unseat their hated leader are far from depleted. Even as they moderate talks in Geneva, the U.S. and Gulf states continue to pump life into the FSA, the moderate rebel faction loosely affiliated with the SNC, by sneaking in arms and humanitarian aid. Russia, meanwhile, has reportedly ramped up its material support for the regime.
Assad's stock has risen in recent months, Syria scholar Joshua Landis told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, nullifying any chance he would seek a golden parachute deal and flee the country. And there is no chance the rebels will lay down their arms while Assad remains in Damascus; they have given up too much. That standstill cannot be resolved in Geneva.
Joshi agreed with that conclusion.
"There is no plausible transitional government that is acceptable to each side, and this week's discussions will surely lead nowhere," he said.
"The larger question is whether the process now set in motion will prove useful, should exhaustion set in, months or even years down the road."