Delegates for the Syrian government and opposition began a fresh round of United Nations–brokered peace talks in Geneva on Monday, but prospects for finding any common ground appeared dim, despite a negotiated deal that allowed the evacuation of 600 people from the besieged city of Homs a day earlier.
The talks come on the heels of a rebel attack in the Alawite village of Maan, which the Syrian government has called a "massacre" and will likely use to bolster its claim that anti-government rebels are closely aligned with Al-Qaeda.
The first face-to-face meetings between the two camps adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little beyond getting the warring sides into the same room. Fighting across the country has escalated since the first round of talks, with nearly 2,000 people killed, according to activists at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
"The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with U.N.–Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to talk peace while it is killing our people in Syria."
Brahimi began holding separate closed-door meetings with the government and opposition delegations to try to set an agenda for the coming week.
While the opposition insists the aim of the talks is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace President Bashar al-Assad, the government's delegation wants to focus on halting "terrorists," the term it routinely uses for the rebels fighting to topple him.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad's stepping down was not on the agenda. "Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it," he said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said on Monday that the talks in Geneva aren't likely to lead to any substantive progress toward solving Syria's crisis.
"Anyone looking for a deal that will end fighting is likely to be disappointed. We learned that the Geneva process is not about dealmaking — it is about name-calling and grandstanding," he told Al Jazeera.
He said that if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry decides to take a prominent role in peace negotiations, he can "shame the Assad regime and Russia (Syria’s ally) some more and eke out a few more concessions."
In an eight-page document obtained by Reuters, dated Feb. 7, that Brahimi gave to both delegations, he asked them to make a commitment at the start to deal with the two main issues: stopping the fighting and working out discussions on a transitional governing body.
"The two issues are among the most complex and sensitive, and both subjects need treatment over several sessions and long discussions," the document said. "But the future of this political process and the possibility of its success require a clear declaration from the outset that the two parties have the full and strong political will to deal with these two issues, with all that they require — courage, persistence and tenacity and openness to reach successful solutions to all the issues, no matter how complicated and thorny."
The second round of talks comes on the heels of a rebel attack on Sunday in Maan, an Alawite village in Syria's central Hama province.
Syrian state media described the attack as a "massacre" perpetrated by "terrorists." Mekdad said "many women" were among those killed in "cold blood."
"This shows a systematic approach by these organizations and those who support them regionally and internationally that they want this for Syria — (that) these massacres are the future for the Syrian people," he said.
The Syrian army accused the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front of carrying out the attack. However, the media office of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham confirmed that its fighters collaborated with another group to kill about 50 pro-government fighters who were residents of the village and denied that the Nusra Front was involved in the attack.
Groups of foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line Al-Qaeda-style ideologies have played an increasingly prominent role among those fighting forces loyal to Assad.
The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey its narrative in Geneva that the three-year-old uprising is dominated by Al-Qaeda-linked groups that see Alawites, a Shia Islam sect of which Assad is a member, as apostates who should be killed.
The SOHR, for its part, said that reports indicate the attack on Maan resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people — half of them civilians, including women, and the other half village fighters defending their homes.