Syria peace talks conclude with no ‘tangible results’

Rights group say 1,900 Syrians died during talks, with the next round of negotiations slated for Feb. 10

U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi at a press briefing at United Nations headquarters in Geneva on Friday.
Anja Niedringhaus/AP

The first round of peace talks to end Syria’s civil war have concluded with little tangible progress to speak of, delegates said Friday, as rights groups reported nearly 1,900 deaths in Syria as the summit was being held in Switzerland.

The two sides have been invited back to Geneva for a second round of talks on Feb. 10. The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has already confirmed it will attend those talks, but the government negotiating team said it would need to consult Damascus before making a final commitment.

“Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner,” U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said at a press conference after talks concluded. “This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build.”

Click here for live coverage of the Geneva talks.

After eight days in Switzerland, government and opposition negotiators remained stalled over how to implement the Geneva communique of June 2012 that called for a transitional government — which the SNC stipulates must not have Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at its helm.

The two sides, which were joined in Geneva by representatives of more than 40 countries, failed to resolve any of the desperate humanitarian crises afflicting Syria, despite extensive discussions about starving citizens and the growing threat of what the delegates called terrorism, which both sides accuse the other of sponsoring.

“The gaps between the sides remain wide. There is no use pretending otherwise,” Brahimi added.

Since the sides converged on Jan. 22, 1,870 people were killed in Syria, according to London-based Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, as the death toll from the nearly-three-year-old conflict climbs upwards of 130,000.

According to the U.N., an estimated 2.4 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict.

“For all the Syrians trapped in this war, our work here will seem far too slow,” Brahimi added. “What I can tell them is that things have gone so far down, they are not going to get up from the ditch overnight.”

Though hoped-for humanitarian aid failed to materialize, the SNC and regime representatives managed to hold face-to-face talks for the first time since the conflict began. The two sides also tentatively agreed on an exchange of prisoners, and both have said peace talks should continue, though they disagree on almost everything else.

In a rare gesture of goodwill apparently inspired by the talks, the U.N. was at long last allowed to deliver critical aid to rebel-held Mukhayam Yarmouk, an unofficial Palestinian refugee camp located on the southern edge of Damascus that has been blockaded by government forces.

But the same could not be achieved for the old city of Homs, where the remaining approximately 3,000 residents have been cut off from aid for close to 600 days. Starvation and disease are rampant there.

Ruling out an aid convoy to the area, the regime delegation had initially indicated it was open to allowing women and children to leave the area, but stepped back from that concession as discussions on the wider issues of Syria’s future stalemated.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem added Friday that his side was concerned armed rebels would fire on an aid convoy.

“I regret to tell you that we have not reached tangible results during this week,” he added, echoing Brahimi’s remarks.

In comments delivered to reporters after Brahimi spoke, Muallem underlined the gaps in vitriolic fashion, accusing the United States, which backs the SNC and arms its affiliated armed coalition, the Free Syrian Army, of “blatant interference” in Syria.

The U.S. has long maintained its military aid was only going to moderate rebels, though the rising influence of Al-Qaeda-linked rebels has bolstered the regime’s narrative that all members of the armed anti-Assad movement are terrorists.

“Those who made this decision are sitting on the moon. There is no moderate opposition,” Muallem said.

The Friends of Syria, a coalition of rebel-supporting nations that includes the U.S., hit back at the regime, blaming it for the lack of progress in Geneva.

But even as Muallem indicated his side was open to resuming talks in Geneva, he called into question the legitimacy of the Istanbul-based SNC, which has minimal support from armed rebel factions on the ground.

“If you stay in five-star hotels abroad, you will be detached from reality,” Muallem said, a criticism very much in line with comments from rebel fighters on the ground who question the SNC’s right to negotiate on their behalf.

“We sense that this delegation have no contact with anyone on the ground,” he added, suggesting that future negotiations would be well served by an all-encompassing opposition delegation.

In more tempered comments, SNC spokesman Louay Safi said that the only step achieved in Geneva was the regime’s agreement to hold future negotiations within the framework of the Geneva communique.

But he seemed to heed Brahimi's call for patience.

“Saving Syria is worth every second we spend here,” Safi said.

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