Syria’s government and opposition finally met face-to-face yesterday as difficult UN-sponsored peace talks inched forward in Geneva.
After a false start on Friday, the two sides came together with mediator UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi at the UN’s European headquarters in Switzerland, his spokeswoman, Corinne Momal-Vanian, said.
The meeting, during which Brahimi spoke as the two delegations listened, wrapped up in less than 30 minutes. The two sides then went into separate rooms, with Brahimi expected to shuttle between them.
“It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus, but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people,” said Anas Al Abda, a member of the opposition negotiating team.
The two sides were expected to be back in the same room in the afternoon for a session the opposition says will focus on humanitarian issues — especially on the besieged city of Homs — but that Damascus says will be more general.
Despite its brevity, the meeting still marked progress after a difficult first day saw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime accuse the opposition of obstructing negotiations and threatening to walk away.
Pulled together by the UN, Russia and the US, the two sides are meeting for the first time in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem the bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war in Syria.
Brahimi announced late on Friday that the two sides had agreed to come together, admitting that the process was proving difficult.
“We never expected this to be easy,” Brahimi told reporters.
The opposition insists the talks should focus on al-Assad leaving power and the formation of a transitional government based on an agreement reached at a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.
The regime says al-Assad’s role is not up for debate at these talks — dubbed Geneva II — and denies that the first deal requires him to go.
Expectations of a breakthrough at the talks, which are expected to last about a week, are very low, but diplomats say bringing the two sides together is an important step.
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will focus on short-term deals to keep the process moving, including localized ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.