Talks aimed at ending the war in Syria took a tentative step forward Wednesday as the government and the opposition group Syrian National Coalition agreed to use the same document as the basis of discussions, although they disagreed about how the negotiations should proceed.
Both sides said they agreed to use the “Geneva communique,” a document developed at a previous international conference in Geneva in June 2012, which sets the stage for an end to the fighting and a political transition.
“We have agreed that Geneva I is the basis of the talks,” SNC spokesman Louay al-Safi told reporters, referring to the 2012 communique.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a Syrian presidential adviser, said there was agreement on using the text, but with some reservations.
While the opposition wants to start by addressing the question of the transitional governing body that the talks aim to create, the government insists that the first step is to discuss “terrorism.”
The government describes those fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad as “terrorists.” The opposition says transitional arrangements must include the removal of Assad, which the government rejects.
At another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last Thursday called for a new election in Syria, saying his nation would respect the results.
"The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria" and once the ballots are cast "we should all accept" the outcome, Rouhani said.
Iran, a close Assad ally, was barred from participating in the Geneva II talks to end Syria's civil war.
Despite the differing interpretations of Geneva I, organizers of the talks at United Nations headquarters in Geneva have been at pains to keep the process going and dissuade either side from walking out.
Syrian state television said the government wanted to discuss the text of Geneva I “paragraph by paragraph.”
“Mr. Brahimi said tomorrow they are going to discuss terrorism, because stopping terrorism is the first issue that should be handled,” Shaaban said, referring to international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who is chairing the talks. “Even in Geneva I the first item is to stop violence which has turned to terrorism.”
There was no immediate confirmation from Brahimi. On Tuesday he said both sides were talking to the media too much and should respect the confidentiality of the talks and not overstate their case.
Despite the apparent small step in the peace talks, chances for a breakthrough before everyone goes home Friday appear almost nil as both sides continue to blame each other for an impasse.
The SNC’s Safi said the government delegation stuck to its demand that putting an end to terrorism was still its No. 1 priority. Nevertheless, the fact that the transition was even on the table was a good sign, he said.
“Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, the body whose responsibility is to end dictatorship and move toward democracy and end the fighting and misery in Syria,” Safi said.
The government seems “more ready to discuss that issue, but still they’re trying to push it to the back of the discussion,” he said. “We told them that this has to come first, because nothing else can be achieved before we form a transitional governing body.”
Shaaban, the presidential adviser, confirmed that both sides had touched on the issue, but described Wednesday’s talks as constructive for another reason.
“The talks have been positive today, actually, because they spoke about terrorism,” she said.
A deal to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged central city of Homs remained stalled Wednesday, with the Syrian government delegation demanding assurances that U.S. aid will not go to “armed and terrorist groups” in the central city.
The negotiations aimed at ending Syria’s nearly three-year-old conflict began Friday in Geneva, and Brahimi has said both sides were willing to continue despite a lack of progress.
The talks were cut short Tuesday over the U.S. decision to restart deliveries of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, more than a month after Al-Qaeda-linked militants seized warehouses and prompted a sudden cutoff of Western supplies to the rebels.
Officials said the communications equipment and other items are being funneled only to nonarmed opposition groups, but the move boosts Syria’s beleaguered rebels, who saw their international support slide, in large part because of the extremists within their ranks.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told the Dubai-based opposition Orient TV on Tuesday that the establishment of a transitional governing body was crucial.
“The regime’s delegation has to accept to discuss this topic and to engage in a serious negotiation,” he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services