Syria agrees to let women and children leave besieged city of Homs

Talks in Geneva between Syrian government and opposition remain stalled on most other issues

A member of the Syrian opposition delegation holds documents showing alleged atrocities as he walks outside of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014.
Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP

The Syrian government has agreed to allow women and children in besieged parts of the central city of Homs to leave immediately, peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Sunday.

The government has asked that the opposition provide names of other civilians who wish to leave the area that is under siege by government troops amid the country’s grueling civil war, Brahimi said at a news conference in Geneva. Homs has been besieged for a year and a half, and residents are becoming desperate for food and supplies.

"They (government authorities) are asking for the names of civilians to make sure they are not armed people," Brahimi said, after the third day of negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition.

But in most other respects, the talks between the opposition groups and the government of President Bashar al-Assad stalled Sunday, as both sides sat with a United Nations mediator in separate rooms.

The opposing sides discussed aid and prisoner releases earlier in the day, in talks aimed at building some kind of trust before tough political negotiations – but there was no sign of the early progress sought by an international mediator.

Russia, one of the talks' sponsors, said any agreement on easing the humanitarian crisis created by the Syrian civil war would help improve the atmosphere at the Geneva talks, but acknowledged that positions were polarized, emotions were on edge and the situation remained extremely grave.

Following their first face-to-face talks on Saturday, government and opposition representatives met again in the presence of mediator Lakhdar Brahimi on Sunday morning and were due to hold a second session later in the day – this time in separate rooms – according to opposition delegate Ahmad Ramadan.

Opposition representatives said they presented a list of 47,000 detainees whose release they are seeking, as well as 2,500 women and children whose freedom they say is a priority.

Opposition delegate Monzer Akbik said the government had promised to answer a request that aid be let into the rebel-held center of Homs, where the opposition says hundreds of families urgently need food and medicine.

"The regime said they will have to go back to Damascus to make a final decision on this, and they will give an answer later today," Akbik said.

"This is a stalling technique,” he said. “We have noticed a lack of seriousness from the regime side."

Homs was one of the early centers of protest against Assad's rule. The unrest first erupted in 2011, before Syria slid into civil war.

Negotiators focused Sunday on bringing the sides together over the issue of humanitarian aid to Homs. 

Only about 1,000 families are still in Homs, a city north of Damascus where a million people lived before the war. One person in the besieged city said he had resorted to eating bark in a desperate attempt to survive. 

Brahimi said Sunday the two sides agreed to let people leave the city, with women and children given first priority. Men in the city must submit their names before leaving. 

"I hope they will be able to leave soon," Brahimi said. There was also progress on the issue of prisoners, with Brahimi saying he hopes an agreement will be reached Monday. 

Since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 130,000 people have been killed, two million have become refugees and about half of the country needs aid, the U.N. has said.

Top Syrian government officials have told Al Jazeera that an aid convoy is ready to enter Homs after rival delegations meeting in Geneva agreed on the need for humanitarian access to conflict areas.

Bouthaina Shabaan, Assad's media and political adviser, made the remarks on Sunday, the third day of peace talks in the Swiss city.

"This is not a concession (by the government)," Shaaban told Al Jazeera in an interview. "In 2013, the government put in place a plan to reach all areas affected by terrorists." The government routinely labels all armed opposition groups as "terrorists."

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"We have been trying our best to reach all areas of Syria, and all humanitarian organizations have been writing positive reports on what the Syrian government is doing on the ground," Shabaan said.

Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi also told Al Jazeera that the aid convoy was ready to enter Homs, and that the government was coordinating security efforts to ensure its safety.

Sunday's negotiations focused on the release of thousands of detainees from the country's prison.

Also central to the negotiations are allegations of prisoner abuse, after pictures emerged earlier in January of the dead and emaciated bodies of people held in Syrian jails, which opposition activists say are run by the government. 

The Syrian government has said this is not happening in its prisons, according to Schifrin. 

Neither side wants to see its members abused by their enemies, Daniel Serwer, a Johns Hopkins international relations professor, told Al Jazeera.

"There is some real possibility of moving ahead with some prisoner exchanges," Serwer said. 

On Sunday, this appeared to be the case.

"The government has asked the opposition for a list of people in their jails. The opposition has agreed to try and collect the list," Schifrin said. 

Faced with finding common ground between two intractably opposed parties, Brahimi dedicated the first two days of talks to humanitarian issues, hoping to create a platform on which to build the far tougher political talks.

He plans to start addressing on Monday what he has called the core issue of the talks: implementing a June 2012 accord that called for the establishment of a transitional governing body by mutual consent.

The opposition says that means Assad must go – a demand the government has dismissed out of hand.

Alice in Wonderland

But Syrian government negotiators argue that that the opposition groups in meeting in Geneva do not represent all the anti-government parties in Syria, and that this hampers the goals of the negotiation.

Earlier this month, the National Coordination Body, a Syrian opposition group that some rebels see as a front for Assad, decided not to take part in Geneva II.

The National Coordination Body, an internal opposition group within the SNC that rejects armed rebellion against Assad, is also known as the National Coordination Committee.

"They do not represent all opposition. There are national opposition parties in Syria. This is not logical. You cannot solve the problem in Syria if you did not invite all of them," Assad adviser Shabaan told Al Jazeera.

She said that a point of contention between Russia and the U.S. was that Moscow had wanted all opposition parties to attend, but that Washington had refused.

Shabaan said the government delegation had been promised that this was only the first round of negotiations, and that others would be invited at a later stage.

"We want to talk to those who represent the ground," she said.

The communique also calls for an end to fighting between the two parties.

"We submitted a plan to (Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov. We do not mind a ceasefire in Aleppo: Take terrorists out and allow aid in and re-deploy police force to bring about stability," Shabaan said.

Brahimi, the U.N. mediator, described Saturday's sessions as a good beginning but conceded that little progress was achieved, and government delegates disagreed with his strategy of addressing specific issues instead of the overall conflict.

"The other side came here to discuss a small problem here or there. We came to discuss the future of Syria," Shaaban said outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, where the two sides are holding indirect talks – gathered in the same room across two sides of a U-shaped table, but addressing their remarks through Brahimi.

There are now hundreds of rebel groups across the country, including hard-line Islamists and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Few pay heed to the opposition in exile, and the powerful Islamic Front has said negotiators who return from Geneva without having assured Assad's downfall will be treated as traitors.

Zoabi, the information minister, said there was no chance of Assad surrendering power.

"If anybody thinks or believes that there is a possibility for what is called the stepping down of President Bashar al-Assad, they live in a mythical world, and let them stay in Alice in Wonderland," he said.

Brahimi said Sunday that the two parties will meet again Monday for talks and, in a sign of the strained relations between the two sides, "they will do most of the talking through me."

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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